Billy Sharp has entered the sunset phase of his career. The phase where he admires the setting sun from his home near the beach, that is. The phase where he drives along Sunset Boulevard.
This is not, he stresses, the time when he fades away, light dimming as he sinks silently out of view. Even though Sharp is 37 and he is, as far as English football is concerned, almost beyond the horizon.
Few modern players are so indelibly associated with one club and one division as Sharp, who was born in Sheffield, made his professional debut for Sheffield United in 2004 and played 45 times for the club in 2022-23 as they won promotion to the Premier League.
In between there were a clutch of loan spells and permanent moves to Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Southampton and Leeds, on the way to Sharp becoming the leading goalscorer in the second tier since the division was rebranded as the Championship in 2004. In total, he found the net 266 times in nearly 700 games in England.
He is indelibly associated with Sheffield United, where he scored 129 goals in 377 appearances across three spells before his release in the summer after a year in which he scored only three goals and was mostly used as a substitute. But last Saturday he kicked off a home game to the strains of Tupac Shakur’s California Love: the line “California knows how to party” echoing around a stadium ringed with palm trees.
This is Billy Sharp’s new dawn. The move to the Los Angeles Galaxy was sudden; he was mulling over offers from a couple of English clubs when he received an invitation to help rescue the Galaxy’s faltering Major League Soccer playoff chase. “It was a no-brainer, really,” Sharp told the Guardian, demonstrating a solid command of American idiom.
When Javier Hernández sustained a season-ending ACL injury in June, a vacancy emerged in the Galaxy forward line for a veteran finisher. And though the club was under transfer restrictions, Sharp was eligible to join as a free agent late in the season and the move was announced in mid-August.
“For us, it was a [player] who we felt could be as plug-and-play as you could possibly get from outside the league because of his experiences, because of the nature and the challenges of the different levels that he has played at, and also because of the humility that he brings to a team and to a locker room,” the Galaxy head coach, Greg Vanney, told the Daily Breeze.
“I didn’t really have much time to think about it. I got the phone call and I couldn’t wait to get here,” Sharp said after last week’s 3-3 draw with the Portland Timbers. “As soon as I got the visa, I was raring to go. It took me a couple of games to get up to speed but I feel good now and I’m really enjoying it.”
Initially coming off the bench, Sharp scored a late penalty on his debut, a 3-0 win over the Chicago Fire on 26 August. More goals followed against St Louis City and LAFC, before a hat-trick in a 4-3 win over Minnesota United saw him named MLS Player of the Matchday. With six goals in six games – at the time making him the team’s joint-top goalscorer – Sharp was now a starter, one of the hottest forwards in the league, and the postseason looked possible.
Not so much any more. A 2-1 defeat by the Seattle Sounders on Wednesday left LA six points outside the playoff places with three games remaining. A win over Minnesota at Allianz Field on Saturday will be essential to the team’s postseason chances.
Regardless of how this campaign ends, Sharp’s deal includes a club option for 2024 and he’s eager to stay. “Everybody at the club, the players, the staff, have made me feel really welcome. It was a great challenge for me to come over here, play in a different league. I’m thoroughly enjoying every day in training and the games,” he said.
Another recent Galaxy signing, the Japanese defender Maya Yoshida, was a teammate of Sharp’s at Southampton. “Very smart player,” Yoshida said. “He knows where the goal is, [he can] smell it. … In the dressing room, he tries to help the team and tries to lift them up. Very positive guy.”
Nominative determinism in football is a dubious theory – how to explain Dennis Wise? – but even though he will turn 38 in February, there remains a serrated edge to Sharp’s style. He did not score against Portland but his alertness and shrewd movement lent the attack a focal point and preoccupied defenders, creating room for teammates, as exemplified by this goal from Douglas Costa.
It’s a matter of desire as well as experience. Sharp declared himself “mad and disappointed” after the Galaxy dropped two points by giving up a second-half equalizer to Portland. “I love football. I still want to score goals and still got plenty of goals in me,” he said. “Hopefully I can keep going for another season.”
The eight-hour time difference with the UK means that Sharp’s pals back home tend to fall asleep before his matches: “I’ve got friends who are looking out, try to stay up for some games but then text me and say, ‘I couldn’t quite stay up.’”
Another aspect of the distance is that Sheffield United games usually kick off at an uncivilized hour for those watching in California. And so far this season they have not made for happy viewing. “The time difference makes me get up early and watch. It’s tough at the minute, tough watching. Gotta dig deep and try to stop the rot,” he said.
Still, Sharp, who had visited New York, Las Vegas and Orlando but not Los Angeles before signing for the Galaxy, is enjoying the lifestyle. There is a statue at Dignity Health Sports Park celebrating the Galaxy’s most famous – though certainly not most productive on the pitch – player. Unlike the former Beverly Hills resident David Beckham, Sharp does not live in a $33m mansion. He’s based a few miles south of LAX airport and the nearest he has come to the A-list celebrity lifestyle is on a tour.
“To be honest where I live is not what I see of Los Angeles on TV. I’ve done the open-top bus around Beverly Hills and that’s the moment where you think, I’m in LA,” he said. “But that’s too hustle-bustle for me. I like it more relaxing, that’s why I chose to live by the beach which I’m lucky to do. It’s much more enjoyable for the family as well.
“It’s been amazing, waking up, the sun’s shining, and I’m doing the best job in the world. Football is what I love doing and to do it in the sun makes it better,” he added.
Sharp’s attitude to work, though, would be the same whatever the level or location. That bloody-minded determination and relish is why he’s still productive and in demand after two decades. “I came over here to try and win and score goals,” he said. “Living in LA … is obviously just a bonus.”