Graeme Sharp was a constant through the 1980s, his career coinciding with the rise, remarkable success and decline of Everton during this decade. A gifted, no nonsense centre forward, and – for the majority of his career – a prolific goalscorer too, Sharp and his goals were crucial to Everton throughout the era. Although his reputation as an Everton number nine is often overshadowed by Alex Young, Bob Latchford and even Duncan Ferguson, Sharp was as underrated as he was prolific; his 150 first class career goals putting him behind only Dixie Dean in Everton’s list of all time goalscorers.
Brought up just outside Glasgow, Sharp was a boyhood Rangers fan. He started out in the city’s junior leagues and was spotted by Dumbarton, for whom he signed as a part time professional in 1978, aged 17. He quickly developed a reputation as one of the most promising young players in the Scottish First Division and was linked with moves to Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Aston Villa and Arsenal. But it was Gordon Lee who followed up this initial interest with a firm offer, and his £120,000 bid in April 1980 proved successful.
‘He is enthusiastic and clearly has potential,’ said Lee when he unveiled his new signing. ‘I’ve been looking for a young striker like Graeme because I think we need one.’ But it would take Sharp a further, often frustrating, 18 months to make any impact at Goodison, whilst Aston Villa and Aberdeen, who had both tried to sign him from Dumbarton, rode high in Europe. In May 1981 Lee was replaced as manager by Howard Kendall, who immediately invested heavily in two forwards, Alan Biley and Mick Ferguson. Sharp was linked with a return to Scotland.
Finally, in October 1981, with Everton beset by injuries and suspension, Sharp’s chance came. Given a rare start against Notts County he seized his opportunity, scoring in a 2-2 draw. He retained his place in the team, and by the season’s end Biley and Ferguson were distant memories as Sharp finished top league scorer with 15 goals from just 27 appearances.
Scarcely did he look back over the next decade. He kicked off the 1981/82 season with a brace in the 5-0 thrashing of new European champions, Aston Villa, and his partnership with Adrian Heath, who also scored twice in the same game, seemed to hold vast potential. ‘When Inchy signed for a club record £700,000 he was struggling as a midfield player,’ he would recall. ‘And I don’t know what made Howard push him up front but the two of us hit off straight away. It was something we didn’t even have to work on. It just came automatically.’ A late season flourish meant that Sharp matched his previous season’s total of 15 league goals.
Although he was quickly gathering a reputation as a prolific goalscorer, Sharp’s all round play was increasingly worthy of note. He was a brave and hard old-school centre forward, not averse to taking knocks – or handing them out. He was more than just an aerial playmaker, however, and possessed a deft first touch; his distribution was unselfish and accurate. The sometime England centre back Terry Fenwick said: ‘Graeme Sharp has really come into his own as a target man in the last couple of years. His strength and power in the air make him one hell of a handful.’
But as Everton’s form and confidence dipped in the early stages of the 1983/84 season, Sharp struggled too. After scoring on the opening day of the campaign he failed to record another league goal until the end of February. His return to form can ultimately be credited to the arrival of Andy Gray, who was Sharp’s boyhood hero. Signed in November 1983, his unshakable sense of self-confidence and desire to win rubbed off on his beleaguered team mates. ‘He was just the sort of character we needed,’ Sharp recalled in his autobiography. ‘He was terrific: a breath of fresh air… He had an unbelievable will and a desire to win football matches and although our fortunes didn’t turn around immediately, he made sure we were never down for too long after a poor result, which is important to a group of young players.’ In footballing terms they were a formidable and heavyweight partnership, with the ability to batter their opponents into submission. In the FA Cup Final they scored a goal apiece as Sharp lifted his first major honour.
For the next two years Sharp’s form was magnificent. During this period he started 100 games for Everton, scoring 51 times. None were better nor more deeply enshrined in Everton lore than the stunning volley he hit against Liverpool in the Anfield derby in 1984. Latching on to Gary Stevens’ long ball, he flicked the ball past Mark Lawrenson and hit a sublime volley from 30 yards that nestled into the top corner of the Liverpool net. The goal ended fourteen years without an Anfield victory, also proving a worthy winner of Match of The Day’s Goal of the Season competition. Even Joe Fagan, so often defiant in defeat, was moved to say, ‘It was a bloody good goal, worth winning any game. It would almost have been a shame for us to score after a goal like that.’
In September 1985 Sharp won his first Scotland cap in a World Cup qualifier in Iceland. At the end of the 1985/86 season he was part of the squad that travelled to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. Later he attracted criticism for not scoring in his first eleven games for his country, his only international goal came in his last appearance in a Scotland shirt, against Malta in 1988
Gray left in summer 1985, and with his successor, Gary Lineker, Sharp formed Everton’s most prolific forward line since the 1930s. Between them they scored 64 goals in all competitions; Sharp’s share including an extra time winner in the FA Cup semi final win over Sheffield Wednesday. But Everton ultimately fell short, narrowly losing out to Liverpool in the league and FA Cup. At the season’s end Lineker was sold to Barcelona and the Sharp-Heath partnership was restored. Sharp was far less prolific during the 1986/87 season, but the goals were shared out and he won a second league title medal. Despite scoring just five league goals, none were more important than the strike that saw off Queens Park Rangers on their much criticised plastic pitch in January – earning a 1-0 win that added crucial momentum to Everton’s title challenge.
The 1987/88 season saw some vintage performances from the centre forward, even though Everton struggled collectively. His first ever hat-trick came when he scored all four goals in the away victory over Southampton. In the FA Cup, with the third round tie against Sheffield Wednesday dead-locked after three attempts, he hit a stunning first half hat-trick in the third replay as Everton recorded a 5-0 victory.
This was to be as good as it got for Sharp, and his decline after the end of the 1987/88 season seemed to mirror that of the team. His partnership with Tony Cottee, a British record signing in summer 1988, was unsuccessful, amidst rumours that the two failed to see eye to eye. His tally of league goals for his final three years at Everton fell from seven in 1988/89 to six in 1989/90 and just three the following season. His last goals for Everton came in one of Goodison’s most memorable matches, the 4-4 FA Cup draw with Liverpool, in February 1991.
At the end of the season Howard Kendall, now in his second spell as manager and seeking to revitalise his team, deemed Sharp expendable. The two had sometimes shared a testy relationship, Sharp feeling he was under-appreciated by Kendall, and the manager critical of his goalscoring record. (Even in Sharp’s own autobiography, when paying tribute to him in appendix Kendall recorded: ‘I still say to this day that he could have been better. Had he got simpler tap-ins we would have had the perfect centre-forward because he had everything else.’) In July 1991 he joined Joe Royle’s Oldham, newly promoted to the top flight, for £500,000. Here, he was a key figure in securing their survival over the next two seasons. In November 1994, when Royle left to manage Everton, Sharp was appointed player-manager at Bounday Park, with Colin Harvey joining as his assistant. However, after failing to make a promotion challenge and amidst crippling financial difficulties, in March 1997 Sharp resigned his position. He then spent a season in charge of Bangor City in the League of Wales. In 1998 he won the Welsh FA Cup, but left the club soon after.
Sharp has since embarked on a successful media career, which he combines with an ambassadorial role for Everton. A dignified and erudite spokesman who always makes time for the fans, he has an enhanced reputation among a generation of Evertonians too young to have seen his pomp.
And yet, it was for his forthright and brave contribution during Everton’s glory years for which Sharp will always be remembered. ‘Even though he was still right at the top of the tree, I think, strangely enough, that he was still underrated,’ Alan Hansen would recall. ‘A lot of players didn’t realise how good Sharpy was. But the players did.’ When Ian Rush was asked in 1987 by his new club Juventus who, out of all the players in the world, he would most like as a strike partner, the Welshman named Graeme Sharp. High praise indeed from the greatest Liverpool forward of the generation to the finest Everton forward, and a true reflection of the high esteem in which Sharp was held.