There’s an adage football fans have long forgotten, that if we can’t say something nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all. So instead of writing about our current season I’ve cast my mind back to another time of Keepmoat Stadium upheaval. One which ultimately delivered the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed at a football match.
It was our fourth consecutive Championship season, and so consensus was that this pub team had overstayed its second-tier welcome. After one point from a possible 21, our ‘total football’ icon Sean O’Driscoll was unceremoniously discarded for Dean Saunders. Big clubs were circling our prize assets, particularly a fat lad from Sheffield who had a thing for goals.
Then came ‘The Experiment’, a Willie McKay led Ponzi scheme supposed to bring us a world class squad on the cheap and duly save our season. It got off to a shaky start. Leeds trounced us 3-0 before the Friday Night Football audience, and on Halloween we only scraped a draw against fellow no-hopers Coventry – a game notable for James Coppinger being denied the most blatant penalty in history following an unpunished rugby tackle.
Talismanic Billy Sharp had been absent from the squad without explanation and rumours were rife of a transfer. In the stands near me Miserable Old Guy had heard “for a fact” that Sharp was leaving on a free transfer to be announced later that week, and he “knew the right people”, you know.
So, Tuesday night we host Middlesbrough, having just signed infamous enfant terriblé El Hadji Diouf – further igniting rumours of a Sharp exit. But that afternoon we learned how, six weeks prematurely, Billy had just become a new father to Luey, only to tragically lose him to gastroschisis over the weekend. And as if this stunning revelation wasn’t enough, Sharp would be starting that night’s match. As captain.
It’s said that grief is love with nowhere to go, and it affects all of us differently. Despite the pre-match debate as to whether it was right for him to play, when the teams appeared Sharp seemed focussed; ready to fulfil his promise of scoring a goal for his son.
We’ve all seen what happened next. Tommy Spurr taps to Diouf; he flicks it over the defence with his heel; Sharp volleys first time into the top corner. It’s cliché to say you know a goal is in before it’s been kicked, but in the West Stand, at a similar angle to the TV camera, I can honestly, hand-on-heart, say that I did know. And so Sharp got to display the message under his shirt; the iconic image we know and love.
History shows we lost that game 3-1, although days afterwards Sharp would score again in a rare win over Ipswich. In fact he scored most of our goals up until his inevitable winter transfer window exit, enough to still end the season as top scorer. And his legacy of the LJS Foundation and other charity work is as impressive as the scoring record he continues to add to.
I’m a decade older than Billy Sharp, have never met him, but his sheer will of being able to not only continue on after personal tragedy, and at such an impressive level, is nothing short of inspirational. It deserves to be heralded as an example of how strong someone can be when life demands it, and to have been capable of such strength at only 25 is incredible.
Just over three years after that cold November Tuesday, I too was an expectant father when my wife went into labour at only six months, a full eleven weeks early. I’d just lost my father and given his eulogy days before, so my appetite for bedside vigils was non-existent. Nonetheless our twins arrived and were instantly rushed to neonatal care where we were able to finally meet them properly later that night.
Neonatal wards are numbingly terrifying on first arrival. Machines and monitors everywhere, beeping away like some 8-bit disco that occasionally gives way to an urgent-sounding tone, making you want to scream for help in a manner fitting every TV hospital drama you’ve ever seen. But they’re staffed by the most amazing people, and to put you at ease, they tell you ‘I know it’s scary, but you don’t need to be worried unless we look worried.’ And they said they’d do their best for us.
Miracles happen on those wards almost daily, to the point that it’s only in retrospect that you comprehend the gravity of it all. We were powerless to do anything but watch and hope .
On the fourth day, one twin took a turn for the worse, and all civilians were ushered out by alarmingly-worried-looking staff whilst they tried to save him. The other parents looked on as my wife and I gave ourselves over to a higher power and did everything we could not to completely break apart. The very real prospect of losing a son and a father within a month of each other loomed large, yet despite everything I knew I’d still have a daughter and a wife, and that I had to dig deep.
I’m not religious, thus had no-one to pray to. Instead, whilst on the verge of a total breakdown, I found myself asking one simple question – ‘What would Billy Sharp do?’ Billy Sharp, I told myself, had gotten through this, so it was possible. What would he do? He’d try to be strong and try to make everyone proud. There but for the grace of the NHS, go I.
As it turned out, both twins pulled through and two months later we were able to take them home a full fortnight before their original due date. So, I never had to find that same strength Billy Sharp did, and hopefully I’ll never have to.
But even now, I don’t know how he dragged himself back from despair to score what remains the finest goal I’ve ever seen. It’s an eternal testament to the fact that, maybe one day we all could find that kind of inner strength too, should we ever have to. And that makes each day a little bit easier.
This article first appeared as Lazarus’ regular column in issue 105 of popular STAND, the unofficial print fanzine of Doncaster Rovers since 1998.