Lee Sharpe with a bag of balls at The Cliff.

The story of how we signed Lee Sharpe

Parallels can perhaps be drawn between the signing of Lee Sharpe and the proposed arrival of Daniel James at Manchester United some 31 years later.

Sharpe may have joined from Torquay United, on this day in 1988, rather than second-tier Swansea City, who were a Premier League side very recently, but he was an exciting capture from the lower divisions whose primary asset was his explosive pace.

A left-winger, like James, he had the raw attributes that caught Alex Ferguson’s eye and a deal worth around £185,000 was finalised with the Devon club in rather cloak-and-dagger circumstances. The story goes that this 16-year-old rookie was recommended to United by ex-Manchester journalist Len Noad.
Lee Sharpe poses in his Manchester United shirt.
Lee Sharpe was a shrewd acquisition from Torquay United on 10 June 1988.
The Reds manager decided to make a personal check on the wide-man in a first-team fixture against Colchester United and, although by Sharpe’s own admission he did not have the best of games, his attitude and physical prowess impressed Ferguson and his assistant Archie Knox. So much so, that they hammered out a deal with Torquay boss Cyril Knowles in the car at the ground!

With Ferguson making it clear he would not leave until they had shaken hands on a transfer, his counterpart visited Sharpe’s lodgings in the early hours to break the news to the star-struck teenager. There was perhaps a concern Knowles would use his contacts at Tottenham, a club he played for as a defender, to sell them the player. Norwich City had also been casting admiring glances at Lee but the determined hands-on approach from the United boss proved decisive, even if there was an agreement for the youngster to see out the remainder of the season at Torquay before completing the move north.

This proved another clever move by Ferguson and, at the start of the 1988/89 campaign, his new recruit was able to bed himself into his new surroundings. The fact there were special matches designed to mark the centenary of the Football League helped the youngster enjoy some first-team action at an early stage.

“I played against Newcastle on the Wednesday in the Football League Centenary game and it went to extra-time,” recalled Sharpe. “So I was playing two hours of football before making my official debut against West Ham on the Saturday.

It was all pretty quick. I was expecting to be in the Reserves for a couple of years when I came in at 17 but, by the time the season had started, I was in the team. Unfortunately, I had a hernia around Christmas time and didn’t really play again that season.

“I was always a left-winger but obviously we had a few injuries and, getting into the team as a 17-year-old, full-back was a bit of an easier position to play with the game in front of you. I played the first half of my first season here at left-back and edged my way forward to start playing left wing. It did help as, back then, I was always renowned as being a little bit lazy as a kid!”

Lee Sharpe with the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1991.
Lee Sharpe was outstanding throughout the successful European Cup-Winners' Cup run in 1990/91.
The United supporters quickly took to a player who made his England debut while still a teenager and really caught everybody’s attention with his performances and personality. A key figure in the 1990/91 European Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph, he won three Premier League titles with the Reds and two Doubles.

Sharpe has an enduring popularity with the Old Trafford faithful and if James' transfer from Swansea is completed, everybody will be hoping the latest speedster plucked from a lower division team can make his own mark at the club in the coming years.

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