By News Team
23rd April 2021
It’s fair to say that Lee Sharpe and Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t always see eye to eye, but the former Manchester United star maintains that despite his old manager being as ruthless as they come in the game, he was a fantastic influence and great to work for.
In the days when players in lower divisions were signing professional contracts on the back of cigarette packets or anything they could scribble their signature on, Sharpe’s Manchester United story has that feeling to it.
He reflects back on the moment he was lying in bed at 1 am after a match for Torquay in the old fourth division, when a knock on the door led to a life-changing moment.
He said: “I’d played for Torquay against Hereford and had a great game, and then I was lying in my bed at about one o’clock in the morning and there was a knock on my bedroom door. It was my landlady’s mate, who said the club secretary and the manager were downstairs and they wanted to see me straight away.
“I was thinking, ‘what have I done?!’ But they sat me down in the dining room and said they’d just been driven around Torquay for the last hour and a half in the back of a Jaguar with Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox. The manager said, ‘they’re not leaving Torquay until you sign for Manchester United, and they’d like to take you there in the morning’.
“As a kid, I was blown away but absolutely petrified about going there and playing beside such good players. So, the whole experience was very exciting but absolutely petrifying!”
Sharpe burst onto the scene at Old Trafford where not long after signing from Torquay, he made his first appearance for the Red Devils and made a whirlwind start to life at the club. In the first few years of his career at United he earned a Young Player of the Year nomination and a first England cap, as well as scoring a hat-trick against Arsenal at Highbury in a 6-2 demolishing.
And the West Midlands star admits that while it was a lot to take in during the early days, working under Sir Alex and the players that United had at that time enabled him to stay focused and within a touch of reality.
He said: “You keep your feet on the ground because you’re judged on performances and as much as you can have one good game one week, you have to work your socks off to make sure you’re in the team the following week. And with a manager like Sir Alex Ferguson, you don’t get to be too flash.
“The dressing room we had at that time was a pretty ruthless place to be with the characters we had. My parents and my mates also helped me to keep my feet on the floor. It’s not that easy to get carried away with yourself.”
Working under Sir Alex Ferguson
It’s well documented that Sharpe had a series of run-ins with Sir Alex during their time working together, but he remembers those days fondly and notes that the Scotsman was obsessed with the game and achieving success.
He said: “He was a very scary man at the best of times! When I first signed, he was lovely and looked after me, and was very thoughtful. After being there for a couple of months he started rollocking us for different things and that continued for the eight years that I was there, so I was always hiding around corners and trying to stay out of his way!
“Overall, he was ruthless, but he was a workaholic and so knowledgeable about the game and everyone we were playing. I learned a lot off him, and he was really good to play under.”
On the fallouts, Sharpe recalls a match at Anfield which led to a particularly memorable bust-up between the pair, which earned the fledgling star the famous hairdryer treatment from Sir Alex.
He said: “I had a few run-ins with him, to be fair! The biggest one was when we went to Anfield. Before that match, I had asked to move out of digs and move in with my girlfriend in my own house. He said I was a little bit too young, but he let me do so because I was in the first team. But he told me that if my work suffered then I’d have to move back into digs. I said that was no problem.
“I found a house in Whitefield and moved my girlfriend up from Birmingham and everything was great. But then I hit a little bit of form that wasn’t quite up to the manager’s standards. We were at Anfield getting beat at half-time, and he gave me the biggest rollocking of my life and told me to sell my house, move my girlfriend back home and told me to get out there and play!”
Sharpe added: “It’s probably the worst place to go if you’re not having a good game and not full of confidence. I had a nightmare, so he brought me off with about 20 minutes to go. I got back, sold the house, sold the car, and told my girlfriend to go back to Birmingham and that was me!
“He asked me now and then after that if I had a girlfriend or if I was married but I always told him that I’d got rid of my girlfriend, wasn’t getting married and not to ask me again! That was the biggest run-in I had with him!”
Class of ’92
Sharpe was witness to the famous ‘Class of 92’ that were emerging at Manchester United, and believes that while their talent was unquestionable, the hard-working environment that existed at the club helped spur them on to reach their potential.
He said: “I wouldn’t say the lads in the ‘Class of 92’ were any more dedicated than the rest of us. We were all professionals and put the work in when we needed to.
“Gary Neville and Phil Neville would be in half an hour before the rest of us, practising long throws, heading the ball, and practicing their first touch with each other. They’d do little bits before training.
“But after training, everyone would be there. Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Giggsy (Ryan Giggs), and we’d all do a crossing and finishing session with Brian Kidd, and it would be the manager banging on the office window getting us to go in and rest to avoid overtraining. But it was because we loved it that much.”
He added: “I think the lads that got into the team – Scholesy (Paul Scholes), the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Giggsy, you could see they were all going to be special players. I’m not sure we expected all of them to maintain the standards that they did and live up to the expectations, but a testament to them, Eric Harrison, and the manager for what they achieved. They were a fantastic group of lads, so it was great to see.”
Leaving Manchester United
Sharpe was left with no choice to leave the club in 1996 after limited opportunities in the first team and joined United’s bitter rivals Leeds for a club record fee at the time of £4.5 million.
He said: “It was a tough decision to leave. I hadn’t been playing too regularly in a couple of seasons before, and when I did play it wasn’t in my usual position. I was put in left-back, right-back, centre-midfield, and when I did play well, I was still getting left out for someone who was in that position regularly and had to just fill in when there were injuries or suspensions.
“I just felt I needed a change, and because the manager put a high price on my head, the options were quite limited. Leeds were spending a bit of money at the time because they’d just been beaten in the cup final, and Howard Wilkinson was rebuilding.”
He added: “I took a little bit of stick from fans for joining Leeds but generally it was a decent move, and it was a good club to be a part of. Howard got the sack after a month of me being there, and George Graham came in. That wasn’t ideal for me.
“I snapped my cruciate in my knee at Leeds, and after a year when I was back, I didn’t play that often. I had played with David Platt at England and he told me he’d try to get me at Arsenal before I signed for Leeds and it didn’t happen. So, when he was a manager at Sampdoria, he said he needed a couple of players and asked me over.
“I went over and wasn’t quite match fit, but I was building up my fitness and then he was sacked after a month of me being there. The old manager came back and said he wasn’t going to play me because he wanted to go with players that he knew.”
He continued: “I’d liked to have stayed longer, until the end of the season with Platty. It was tough there. I didn’t speak the lingo so couldn’t get involved in the changing room banter with the lads. But I loved it there and where I lived just outside Genoa. The people were lovely. If I had an English-speaking manager then I would have stayed longer.”