WHEN Billy Sharp scored in Doncaster’s 2-0 win over Sheffield United this evening, he ran towards the dugout and lifted his shirt to reveal a red vest bearing the words ‘Fat Lad From Sheffield’.

First, I asked myself: What’s all that about? And then I thought: Good job he scored, or he wouldn’t have had the chance to show that message. And then I wondered: How many times has a player gone to the trouble of getting a vest/undershirt made up with a special message, and then not had the chance to display it?

Footballers have been wearing hidden messages, ready to reveal at the right time to the world, or at least the fans behind the goal, for more than a decade – from Robbie Fowler supporting Liverpool dockers to Ian Wright breaking Arsenal’s all-time scoring record to Carlos Tevez and Cesc Fabregas wishing mum a happy birthday in Spanish to Sharp declaring to a live BBC audience that he’s a fat lad from Sheffield.

They were the successful ones. But there must have been dozens of players who have had some special message ready to declare to the watching public – ‘Special offer on sushi at Morrisons’, perhaps, or ‘Has anyone seen my pet cat Tiddles? He’s been missing since last Monday’ – only to then have a stinker of a game and get substituted after 55 minutes.

Sharp, though, was to be a little luckier. Three minutes before half-time, with Doncaster leading through a James Coppinger goal, he tucked in the rebound after Steve Simonsen had brilliantly saved James Hayter’s shot.

The scorer, a boyhood Sheffield United fan who still lives in the city, had promised before the game that he wouldn’t celebrate. And he didn’t. Instead, there was just a run to the bench and a reveal. He had put a bit of effort into his undershirt – white letters printed on red material. None of that barely legible marker-pen-scribble-on-a-vest nonsense.

Within three minutes, his night was over, due to a pulled hamstring that could keep him out for three weeks. He beat the turf in frustration as he realised the extent of his injury. I suppose another way of looking at it is that he scored just in time.

And still I had no idea what the ‘Fat Lad In Sheffield’ message was about. Fortunately, Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll was able to explain afterwards.

Any regular readers of this blog (Hello! Hello? Hello?!) will know that I am an O’Driscoll fan – his team have established themselves in the Championship by playing in an attractive style, his football analysis is spot on and he talks a lot of sense. But not even O’Driscoll’s biggest fans would claim him to be a born raconteur.

I won’t repeat his telling of the ‘Fat Lad In Sheffield’ story word for word; let’s just say he went round the houses a bit, saying that Sharp had been a little frustrated because the goals have not flowed as freely for him as they did last season.

“He got 16 goals for us last year, and I’ve said many times that if he doesn’t score another goal, I’d still take him because of the way he plays,” O’Driscoll said. “He’s bright and he gives defenders a real problem.

“This season, he’s got frustrated and lost that bit of edge that he has to his game. So I said to him: ‘When you play like you can do, you’re strong, you’re muscular, you’re bullish, you’re bright and you give defenders a problem. When you don’t, you’re just a fat lad from Sheffield.’

“It was meant in that light-hearted way that footballers like. Unbeknown to me, he’s put that on the back of his shirt, and shown it in front of the TV cameras as well, so maybe he’s got his own back on me.”

Yes, Sharp certainly picked his moment. Not only was the game on TV, it was live on BBC Two – Doncaster’s first-ever live appearance on terrestrial television – thus ensuring the message reached out beyond the Sky sports buff constituency and into the realm of those searching for a Dad’s Army repeat or an episode of Coast.

It also meant that, around 90 minutes before kick off, as I steadily made my way through the press room’s pre-match buffet, I found myself sitting around six feet away from Colin Murray, papers spread out on a table in front of him, studiously preparing himself to host the BBC’s live coverage.

I might have said something to him. But then – and you’re going to think this is really inappropriate in about three paragraphs from now – I was suddenly reminded of an anecdote comedian Mark Steel told about meeting an American newspaper executive during a trip to the Edinburgh Festival in 1990.

The executive, a member of Scotland on Sunday’s editorial board, recounted in his youth saving up for months to take his girlfriend to a very expensive Manhattan restaurant for her birthday, only to discover halfway through the starter that Henry Kissinger was sitting two tables away.

Unable to control himself, the young American marched over to Kissinger’s table and started to tell him what he thought of him – at which point two security guards pounced and marched him out of the restaurant.

Murray, unlike Kissinger, seems a decent chap. He didn’t, as far as I could see, have any security guards around him (although he was sharing a table with Brian Deane, who I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of). And going up to Murray and saying “What the hell are you doing to Match of the Day 2?” would hardly have been up there with going up to Kissinger and calling him “a murderer and an insult to humanity”.

But, you know, I was in that room as a member of the press, not a fan. Sometimes it’s better to try to maintain a shred of professionalism rather than go with your emotions. So I stayed in the corner and continued reading the programme.

If this weekend’s MOTD2 is once again rounded off with a bunch of home videos featuring members of the public pummelling the show’s theme tune into submission, you can blame my inaction. I had the chance to do something about it, to make a point politely but firmly, and said nothing. I am sorry.

I could, perhaps, have used a more indirect method to get my message across. Midway through the first half, I noticed the chap sitting two seats to the left and one row back from me was waving into the distance. He had caught sight of a nearby TV monitor showing that a BBC camera had zoomed in our part of the press box.

That would have been a chance to lift up my shirt to reveal a vest bearing the message “Stop it with the home-made MOTD covers, Murray”. But I hadn’t prepared one. As Sharp, or any striker, will tell you, success requires anticipation as well as execution.

Image: BBC Sport


4 Responses to Messages

  1. Bad Andy says:

    Well one of the more famous ‘failed’ t-shirt message was the one prepared by the whole Arsenal team after their invincibles season. The team had got ’50 not out’ tshirts prepared if they avoided defeat at Old Trafford. They got beat 2-0. I don;t know if they all wore the shirts throughout the whole game – if they did it might have been a contributing factor to their defeat!

  2. mikewhalley says:

    Good story – I’d forgotten that one!

  3. Sheepskin Stu says:

    The lad in the press box wearing the Rovers shirt is Paul Mayfield. He held up a sign behind Gary Speed advertising his supporters club branch. You may have talked him. He probably offered you a chocolate finger.

  4. mikewhalley says:

    Paul offered me a chocolate finger before the game. I accepted. In fact, I’d say it got me through a slow opening half-hour.

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