Lee Sharpe talks Fergie clashes, slams Bruno Fernandes and Fred and says Solskjaer’s out of his depth
We had a chat with former Manchester United midfielder Lee Sharpe ahead of the Manchester derby at the Etihad this weekend.
Sharpe, who has taken part in Celebrity Love Island and Dancing on Ice since hanging up his boots, spoke to us on his relationship with Fergie, what he makes of Bruno Fernandes and whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the right man for United.
Keep an eye on his 5-A-Side selection on our social channels over the coming days.
On the Manchester derby and score prediction
As far as my own memories of the Manchester derby go, it’s tough because they were nowhere near as good a side as they are now. But we’ve had some unbelievable games against them in the past to be fair. One that springs to mind for all the wrong reasons is a 5-1 thrashing at Maine Road, where Fergie put me on as sub for the last 15 minutes. 5-1 down, I was like “thanks a lot for that; I’ll just go on and turn it around, shall I?” I didn’t.
But the other one which was far more pleasing was when we were 2-0 down at Maine Road and came back and won 3-2, Roy Keane scored the winner for us. That was a great game to win.
As far as celebrating those wins go, it very much depends on the fixtures we had coming up. If the fixture list was generous to us, we’d have been out on the Saturday night and almost definitely the Sunday as well, but so often we’d have midweek games, which is why we tended to keep any real celebrations until the end of the season.
It’s going to be a tough game for United this weekend. Man City will have a lot of the ball and United will have to be really careful if they’re going to try and play it out from the back because City are so good at pressuring high up the pitch and forcing you into mistakes. United are going to spend a lot of the game penned in their own half.
But the pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Mason Greenwood means United really have got to try and utilise the counter as much as they can. Those four can do some damage, but City are in such good form at the moment that you’ve really got to be at your best if you’re to have a chance of taking anything from the game.
The difference between the two sides is huge at the moment. I think City just seem to move the ball a lot quicker, they have more of an idea of what their plan both individually and as a team is. They all know their roles and everyone seems to know where their teammates are going to be in every attack.
As for Man United, it just feels like it’s more off the cuff; like they all know they’re good players individually so let’s see what we can create, without really moving the ball and it’s like they’re lacking a real definitive plan. It’s two completely different ideas of how to play the game.
You have to go and have a go at City this weekend. They’re that organised all across the park and they’re on such a good run that I don’t think their defenders have really been troubled or tested relentlessly for weeks. So you’ve got to go out there and try and do that. Get the ball and pin them into their own box. United have got to have a go and they’ve got to work that defence because if there is a weakness in the City side, it’s in defence where questions are asked.
It’s tough to ask me for a score prediction because I really don’t want to say City win; I can’t bring myself to say it. I’m going to go with 2-2 and hope for the best.
On Man United’s season so far
It’s been a little bit frustrating for Man United this season. At times they’ve put in some world class performances and they’ve made the most of the quality players they’ve got going forward, but they’ve also fallen short in quite a few games this seen and haven’t been as creative as I’d have thought they’d be.
They’ve been getting beat by the lower teams in the league and sitting back just to avoid defeats against the bigger teams. It’s been a little bit frustrating, but at least you can see a little bit of improvement I guess. I’d really like to see them go for it more and attack against the bigger teams, but equally they’ve got to start scoring more against the smaller sides in the division.
I think against the big teams, Man United are just too reserved; they don’t seem to really go for it. They show far too much respect to their opponents and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer generally plays two holding midfielders or has an extra player sitting a little deeper so there’s less of an emphasis on going forward.
I’m still not quite sure about Bruno
Over the last few months I’m not really sure you could say Bruno Fernandes has performed in the big games. I know everyone is raving about him and I’ll probably get slagged off for it but I’m still not quite sure about Bruno.
He did come in and set the world alight but since then – apart from penalties – he’s not really done anything. For me, he seems to give the ball away far too cheaply and he’s not getting as involved as I’d like. Whether it’s down to where the manager is playing him or Ole’s instructions on what he wants him to do, he just doesn’t seem to be getting involved anywhere near as much as he used to.
It’s always going to be harder playing against the top teams, but that’s when you want your key players to stand up and produce something magical, but sometimes I feel like United sort of wing it in those games. They don’t really have a plan. Yes, they move it around and they pass the wall well but if they come up against a well-organised defence, they struggle to create anything and I don’t think they have a real plan in place at times.
Where United can strengthen this summer
There are always areas on the pitch you can strengthen as a side and I think there are two lads currently playing for Dortmund that Man United should seriously be looking at. Jadon Sancho on the right – I think United are still lacking real quality out in that position. Mason Greenwood has filled in and Daniel James has come in and had a good month or so but I think they need to improve on that position if they want to be challenging for titles and Champions Leagues.
And the other name is obviously Erling Haaland. On his day Anthony Martial can be a world-beater but he doesn’t have enough of those days. Edinson Cavani, we’re seen, struggles to stay fit and perform week-in, week-out, whereas Haaland has proven himself over the last few years as one of the best in the world in that position. If they were to go out and get those two names in then they wouldn’t be far off being a real team.
Daniel James has come from Swansea, jumped up a division to come and play at Old Trafford. He’s still young, he’s raw and he’s got a lot to learn, but he’s just not at the same level as the kind of players United should be looking to sign and start every week, like Jadon Sancho.
I don’t think United are far off being a title-winning side at all, really. When you’re in that position, you’ve first and foremost got to make sure that you’re structurally sound in defence and I think they’ve got that in Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly are a handy pair to have as well.
They could possibly bring in another central defender but I don’t think that would make too much a difference. It’s more about the midfielders sitting in front of that defence and protecting them – particularly in the big games. I think Nemanja Matic does a good job of it when he comes in.
I’m not sure about Fred. One minute he’s doing something brilliant, the next he’s doing something an under-15 schoolboy would do. He’s liable to give the ball away on the edge of his own box and he’s just as liable to carry the ball, beat a couple of players and slot the ball through to someone to score a goal. I think really it’s about those holding midfielders doing their job, that helps on the clean sheet front. If they can bring in Haaland and Sancho then you don’t need me to tell you they’d have a forward and attacking midfield line as good as anyone’s in the world.
Top four predictions
You’d expect Man United to put in a good performance at the weekend just because it’s their local rivals they’re playing, but they’re not going to be favourites to win the game, that’s for sure.
Then you start looking at the teams around them in the table. Thomas Tuchel has come in at Chelsea and he’s got that team playing really well and picking up results again. Leicester are still knocking around and West Ham are playing well.
You’d envisage Tottenham might turn another corner and fancy their chances of reaching the top four – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned Liverpool who won the title last year. So you’re always going to be looking over your shoulder between now and the end of the season.
West Ham have had a fantastic season and it’s a credit to David Moyes that we’re into March and they’re in the conversation when it comes to top four hopefuls. I think they’ll drop out of it though. I fancy Chelsea to lift things up another notch and climb into their in fourth behind Leicester, with Man United behind City.
There are so many teams in there with a chance, though. Can you rule Liverpool out? They’re not far off the top four at the moment but they just can’t seem to get going. Even when they win a couple and you think they’ve turned a corner, they go and drop a few more points and they’re playing catch-up again. A top six spot would be good for Everton, but again, we’ve not even mentioned Tottenham in this conversation.
Ole’s out of his depth
I have to say I’ve never really thought Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the right man for the Manchester United job. Yes, he’s done a good job, but I think he’s done as well as he can do, to be honest. The board have backed him, they’ve given him money to spend, but he’d never have been my first choice, purely because of that lack of experience.
If you’re one of the biggest companies in the world outside of football, you’re not going to employ someone for such a big role the way United have done with Ole. If you look at his experience of the Premier League, he managed Cardiff – then he went to Molde in Norway for a little bit. So to then come in to one of the biggest clubs in the world off the back of that record, I think he’s a little bit out of his depth.
You can see that in certain games; I don’t think he gets the players up for it. I don’t by any stretch of the imagination think you need to manage players by fear, but there does need to be that element of aggression – and it’s something you see all of those top managers possess. I hope he proves me wrong; he’s a great bloke and he is doing a good job. I just don’t think he’s the ultimate man for the job. When he’s competing against the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Jose Mourinho, all of these managers that are more knowledgeable and experienced, it’s a tough ask for him.
The amount of times this season United have gone 1-0 down inside the first 10/15 minutes tells me that everyone’s not on their toes, they’re not on their best game, so the slow starts are a problem for me – and the way they’ve struggled to score against some of the weaker sides in the division.
In my own experience under Sir Alex Ferguson, believe it or not, it wasn’t when you were 1-0 down that you had to worry at half-time, it was when you were 2-0 up. You’d come in 2-0 up thinking you’d had a good first half and he’d absolutely rip shreds into everyone because players aren’t doing their jobs and they’ve probably taken their foot off the gas a little bit. But 1-0 down, he’d generally come in a little more upbeat, reassuring us chances will come and we’ll get back into the game.
On Fergie clashes
I had eight years at Man United and my relationship with Fergie wasn’t great. We didn’t really see eye to eye. I felt at times I was struggling with my game and rather than pulling me to one side and helping me improve, he just seemed to berate me, nail me, put me down, slag me off, call me all sorts of names and there wasn’t a lot of coaching and education there. So I struggled with him, and the more he had a go at me, the more I did stuff he didn’t want me to do, so I think we wound each other up really.
I think Fergie probably thought that I wasn’t bothered about football and that I just wanted my name in the paper. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The only reason I ever wanted to be in the paper was from doing something good on the pitch, scoring goals and playing well.
Fergie had a different idea of what was going through my mind and it couldn’t have been further from what was actually on my mind. It could have just been a clash of personalities, but also that’s just the way that he manages. That was how it was done back then, and I’m sure he changed his ways over the years.
Managers and players can only deal with situations based on the information and knowledge they’ve got at the time and Fergie had his ways of managing things. He had a lot of success off the back of it, and I put that down to him having a lot of aggressive players in that side at the time so they responded well to his approach.
It worked for them and it didn’t work for me. You had people like Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Mark Hughes, and that style worked on them because naturally they were all aggressive players so he knew how to rile them up. But I’ve never been an aggressive player; I never felt the need to feel aggressive, threatened or under pressure from my manager. We had different mentalities and different ways of dealing with things.
I was 17 when I joined Man United and 26 when I left. I did go on to work under some other great names though. Howard Wilkinson signed me at Leeds and got sacked after a month of doing so, which was a bit disappointing for me, then George Graham came in who was pretty old school and stuck in his old ways.
The 1-0 to the Arsenal became 1-0 to the Leeds, so as an attacking midfielder that wasn’t great for me because we were just so defensive. It was a difficult team to play in. And then David O’Leary took over, and I didn’t really get on with him. I did when he was the assistant, but when he took over he stopped playing me and he wanted me to leave, which was a bit bizarre. I couldn’t get my head around that.
On playing in the infamous Cantona kung-fu kick game
I played in that Crystal Palace v Man United game back in 1995, and we were obviously under the cosh having been sent down to 10 men.
The game was twice as hard because of Eric Cantona’s red card, and then he’s walking off the pitch and he kung-fu kicks someone in the crowd. We’re thinking ‘my God he’s lost the plot, the manager is going to kill him. We play out the game, I think we drew 1-1, get in the dressing room and Fergie comes in and absolutely berates the team for drawing 1-1 and playing rubbish. He turns to Eric and says “you can’t go round doing things like that, son”.
So we quickly realised that Eric must have been his long lost son and was never going to get told off for anything he did, then we have to get back on the coach, regroup and get ourselves ready for the next game.
We all knew Eric was a special player and we knew that he’d come up with a bit of magic in tough, tight games and win it for us. He was one of the boys in the dressing room, he would always come on lads’ nights out. He was never any trouble with us; we all thought he was different class. It was the manager’s reaction; it wasn’t him. Eric can’t control how the manager chooses to react to him. He was as good as gold, Eric.
There was a bit of a laugh and a joke in the dressing room about what he’d done but it wasn’t exactly funny when he ended up getting banned for seven or eight months.
The next thing we heard was that he’d run off back to Paris, Alex Ferguson has got the next flight to Paris to follow him and he’s driving round France on the back of a moped looking for Eric to try and get him to come back. We didn’t see Eric for quite a while after it happened, but there was always room for a couple of laughs about it afterwards in the dressing room and he took it all in his stride. He didn’t really care about it.
On Liverpool’s title defence
I’ve been there as a player, as a Premier League winner and it’s a lot tougher in that second season. You do feel like everyone steps up their game that little bit more. For a start, you’re already playing for Manchester United, so whoever you play it’s going to be like their cup final.
Liverpool have been unlucky with injuries, there’s no getting away from that. I think the injury to the new lad up front, Diogo Jota, has had a massive impact on things, because even if he wasn’t a guaranteed starter, a player of his calibre on the bench is keeping Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all on their toes and so the injury to Jota leads to a bit of complacency from those three because they know they’re going to be playing in the next game regardless.
There’s an easing off of intensity there from Liverpool this year, definitely. And it’s understandable, too. They were so close to winning the league the year before they actually won it, so that’s two long seasons playing at such a high level, winning the league last year was such a massive moment for them. This season intensity has naturally dropped a level and all of a sudden you’re heading into games as champions, and that’s the position where everyone wants to beat you. It’s so difficult to retain the title in back-to-back seasons, as Liverpool are seeing.
I knew I’d made it when The Inbetweeners namechecked me
I was a fan of The Inbetweeners back when it was on TV so I was watching it at the time when I heard Jay and Neil saying my name over and over again. It was hilarious and took me completely by surprise obviously. Every now and then someone will post the clip on social media, or will reply to my posts just saying “It’s Lee Sharpe, it’s Lee Sharpe!”
I’m not sure I’d like to think too much about what the question might have been if the answer was Ryan Giggs and they thought it was me!
It was the day I’d realised I’d made it, when that episode aired. Not three Premier Leagues, not Celebrity Love Island, not Dancing On Ice. It was when my name was being shouted out as the answer to a pub quiz question on The Inbetweeners.