On November 23 1968, a young outside right from Glenrothes Juniors appeared as a trialist for Cowdenbeath. Ronnie Sharp was a Dalkeith lad and had played with Broxburn Athletic before moving to Fife to play for the Glens and work in the local pits. Sharp proved to be a real tonic in the match versus Dumbarton at Central Park, scoring two before half-time.
Sharp became one of Andy Matthew’s earliest captures for Cowden. It was quickly apparent that Cowden had a wonderful talent on their hands. In April 1969, he was called up from Glenrothes where Clyde, Nottingham Forest and Burnley had all been casting envious eyes over him. Falkirk, Dunfermline and Workington had also been interested in him when he had been with Broxburn.
In Cowden’s surprise promotion-winning season of 1969/70, Sharp shared the right-wing berth with Roger Sugden. On his day he was a world beater, but on other occasions he faded right out of a match. The underlying problem was that he was an inveterate gambler. He would pick up his wages at Central Park at 9pm on a Thursday evening and lose it all at the local pitch and toss school before catching the last bus home. The tossing school in Cowdenbeath was run by Adam Moffat, Jim Baxter’s brother.
When Matthew’s side won promotion to the top flight, the club treated the players to an end of season fortnight in Majorca. Wing-half Jim Taylor remembers: “Then there was Ronnie Sharp. After the training, he’d be straight round to the tossing school and he’d lose all his wages. When we went to Majorca, on the first night we were all sitting around drinking too much. Ronnie upset our skipper, Andy Kinnell, who whacked him. Next thing it turned out Ronnie had a broken jaw. He flew home, had his jaw wired, then popped into his house and nabbed his wife’s housekeeping money and flew back to rejoin the rest of the players in Spain.”
Soon afterwards, Ron left his job at Seafield Colliery and moved to work in England. He had been upset by the death of a colleague in a roof fall. His job had involved delivering girders in a 4ft crawlspace deep below the Forth that was shrouded in its own peculiar mist. This led to him only making one starting appearance for Cowden in their single season in the First Division.
He returned at the start of 1971/72 with a brilliant display and a hat-trick in a 7-0 win over Forfar. However, his performances were maddeningly inconsistent and he soon dropped out of the side. In 1972/73, he again briefly blossomed at the beginning of the season with two goals against Hamilton and showed promise in a new midfield role. His spell in the side didn’t last. He moved from job to job while his Jack the Lad approach and major gambling problems were destroying a wonderful talent. His wife of three years divorced him.
His teammates were well used to having to lend money to the likeable winger. Cowden team-mate Alan Kennedy recalls: “Ronnie Sharp: a very skilful winger but his big problem was gambling. Once he hitchhiked all the way to Arbroath from Cowdenbeath to see me as he had lost all his wages of £30 at the tossing school and couldn’t go home to his wife without money. I lent him £25 and that was the last I saw of that.” Ex-Cowden left back Davie Cairns says: “One of my earliest games saw us beat Forfar 7-0 with Ronnie Sharp scoring three. When Ronnie wanted to play, he had magic feet. On other days though he produced absolutely nothing – no story about what Ronnie did would ever surprise me.”
Sharp was eventually placed on the transfer list as a problem boy, but in March 1973 to everyone’s surprise he signed for the NASL side Miami Toros. John Young had played for Hibs and St Johnstone but was now the Toros coach. He had come over to Scotland on a scouting trip and recognised Sharp’s latent quality. He promised Young he wouldn’t gamble and Young then took a gamble by signing him. Gamblers Anonymous helped Sharp get this fresh start in the United States.
Miami Dolphins were the local superstars at the time, winning the Superbowl twice. But soccer had its advocates. Sharp became a star in the NASL with the Toros, earning $1,300 a month. He coached local schoolchildren for an hour and half each day and such was his status that he was profiled in an article in Sports Illustrated, normally the preserve of the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus and other US stars. The press reported that Ronnie was one of the League’s leading personalities who drew crowds wherever he went, like the Pied Piper. He was the darling of the ladies whilst Channel 23 referred to him as the “Joe Namath of pro Soccer”.
Toros played Los Angeles Aztecs in the 1974 NASL championship final. Sharp missed a twice-taken penalty in regulation time. A penalty shoot-out was then required to settle matters. He missed from the spot for a third time but again was given a retake and at last managed to net. The Aztecs won the shoot-out in a match played in a temperature of over 100 degrees. Ronnie was twice selected in the NASL all-star team of the season – in 1974 and in 1975 when the line-up also included Peter Bonetti, Mike England, Simões, Gordon Hill and Pelé.
Enjoying his success, Sharp popped back home to Scotland. Cowden full-back Alan Kinnell recalls: “He owed money to most of the players. He was in the papers then playing for Miami Toros in the USA and doing well. He re-appeared at Central Park for one game and we saw him sitting in the stand in a flashy white suit. The guys thought, ‘he’s come to pay us back’, but he was away before the end of the game.” The Toros though sent Cowdenbeath a cheque for $400 as a thanks for releasing Ronnie so he could play in the States.
Sharp played a few matches outwith the American season with the Mexican club San Luis Potosi. While there he met a girl named Guadalupe Rodriguez. He was eating eggs in a restaurant and local kids were hanging around just to watch him. ‘Lupita’ attended the school next door and would drive by in an old boneshaker car. It was seemingly love at first sight.
Sharp admitted he had been living a gigolo lifestyle in Florida. He would wake up in the morning, clean his teeth and wrap a towel around his midriff. Then he would knock on a nearby apartment door for another liaison with sundry American women. He decided to marry Lupita and then had to convey this fact to her father – the formidable Don Quentin Rodriguez, who owned 17 bus stations in Mexico.
An angry and gun-toting Don Quentin met with Sharp and raged for half an hour. Four of his seven sons had come along too, mainly to ensure their father wouldn’t go too far. However, Sharp did ultimately win his blessing and married into this prominent and extremely wealthy family. His wedding was front page news in both the San Luis Potosi (a city of over 900,000 inhabitants) newspapers and there were 600 guests and a full orchestra at their wedding in the cathedral. It was like a scene from Dynasty. Sharp later said: “Three days after our wedding, we were back in Miami for the season opener. The following Sunday morning, Don Quentin phoned from Mexico. He had an orchestra with him, and he wanted to know what song we wanted to hear. We chose ‘The Impossible Dream’. It really is an impossible dream come true for me. I never thought I would get a break like this.”
Sports Illustrated reported: “In Florida they call me ‘the Pied Piper of Soccer’ and in Mexico ‘El Rubio Escoces’, which means the blond Scotsman. Looking forward, one day I might like to manage a club, while in my homesick moments I think about running my own pub back in Scotland. I think though my future is in Miami – it’s certainly a long way from Cowdenbeath and the pits. When I first came to Miami I remember a woman asking me, ‘What language do you speak in Scotland and how long did it take you to learn English?’ Then a newspaper interviewed me and reported me saying in my Scottish accent, “We’re gonah coom ow here tonie an ge em froostrayid”. Now with so many Latin American players in our team, I’ve taught myself basic Spanish. I know now how to get a card game going with “Tu quieres un juego Canasta?” My Spanish is improving every day. I need to speak it anyway now as two months ago I married my wife, Lupita.”
Thus it seemed that Sharp’s life had been gloriously transformed but unfortunately real life isn’t a fairytale. For a time, he enjoyed the limelight. In 1975, the Toros had a sticky spell. Their star striker, Trinidadian Steve David, felt a witch doctor’s intervention was required. He had been a believer in witchcraft and voodoo ever since he had played in the Trinidad team that lost to Haiti in a World Cup qualifying play-off in 1973. His Trinidadian team-mate Warren Archibald agreed. Haiti had won that match 5-2 after Trinidad had been winning 2-1. Trinidad though had four goals disallowed due to supernatural forces, felt Messrs David and Archibald. Sharp discounted any such talk, “They may use that to win games in Africa but we had something better in Scotland – money! I remember once we were getting beaten 1-0 at half-time in a game when our manager came into the dressing room and gave us each a bonus. We went out and beat them 2-1. That was sure a good way to get us to win games.”
In 1977, Miami Toros, in that odd American way, moved to Broward and were retitled the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Ex-Portsmouth player Ron Newman was the coach in charge of the side. He was a hard driver on the training ground and Sharp benefited from his pre-season training. Newman also tried some innovations such as ballet dancing. As the local press reported, “The unkindest cut for a soccer player in Europe is to be called a ballet dancer. It is, putting it gently, a slur on his masculinity.” “It means you are timid and queer,” said Sharp. Ex-England goalkeeper Gordon Banks was a bit self-conscious but Sharp claimed, “I was a Highland dancer at one time in a kilt and would dance in the space of crossed swords.”
Sharp though only played one match that season. He had seemingly developed a fear that he was dying, that his heart was running out of beats. He was seen standing out in the pitch trying to take his own pulse. He kept demanding to be taken to hospital saying his heart was racing. Six specialists found nothing wrong. After taking some sort of pep pill his heart raced even faster and he became even more fearful. There were also trips to a psychiatrist and a hypnotist but eventually, to avoid a nervous breakdown, he took a leave of absence down in Mexico. It seemed to be all in his mind. He appeared to be restored to his old self after some time south of the Border but abruptly decided to retire aged just 29, citing heart problems. He also had long suffered a fear of flying. Indeed back in the Toros days he had been known as the “team hypochondriac”.
In 1984, the Strikers relocated to Minnesota. Enter Sharp, who announced he had funding to bring a new soccer club to Fort Lauderdale. He had secured a franchise in the new United Soccer League, enraging rival Jimmy Sorrentino who believed he had the rights to a franchise in South Florida and wanted to establish Fort Lauderdale United. City Commissioner Virginia Young gave Sharp’s plans her full support. She said, “I’m proud we’re going to have soccer ahead. I’m in your team, even if I’m not a player.”
Sharp announced his new franchise in the Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale. Chicken and assorted meats and an open bar were available to the guests. It was reported: “Ronnie Sharp’s first turn in pro soccer in South Florida was an affair of the heart which had little to do with his love for the sport. His romantic interest and concerns over a mysterious heart ailment are the images that stick. Picture a Scotsman, with long blond hair lounging poolside at the Beau Rivage Hotel on Miami Beach. Just over from Edinburgh to play for Miami Toros in 1973. Sharp would order champagne for almost every pretty woman that walked by. ‘Bill the club’, he’d say. ‘Stop’, the club said when the bill approached $1,000. Today Sharp’s Rod Stewart mane is cut fashionably shorter and has lost its sun-streaked sheen.”
In May 1984, the new Fort Lauderdale Sun debuted at their Lockhart Stadium, losing 4-3 to Charlotte Gold. Sharp had installed Keith Weller as player coach while the side included Dave Watson, Asa Hartford and Teofilio ‘Hammer of the Scots’ Cubillas. ‘Nene’ Cubillas was his big signing but he was initially only able to play in home matches. Two weeks later, though, Sharp made even bigger headlines. He was arrested at a motel near Laredo, just over the border from San Luis Potosi. He was held in Webb County Jail in Laredo for 19 days and charged with six others in connection with a $120m drug smuggling operation. Most of the others were arrested at the Laredo Airport as they prepared to take off in a DC7 owned by one of the ‘gang’.
Sharp, it seems, was the middleman in an attempt to smuggle 200,000lbs of marijuana into the United States. The DEA believed that he had put together the operation involving contacts in Colombia, Mexico and Texas. It was reported that Sharp had personal wealth of $2m and had recently invested $112,000 in Fort Lauderdale Sun. He also owned a liquor store in San Luis Potosi, a wedding gift from his father-in-law. This was the only liquor store in Mexico that could sell 24 hours a day – on a Saturday night turnover was often $10,000. He and his wife actually owned two liquor stores, two restaurants, a transport business and a motel, as well as real estate. They also owned popcorn machines in every bus station in Mexico. The Mexican business community called him the ‘Popcorn King of Mexico’. Sharp was also negotiating to build three McDonald’s restaurants in Scotland.
The Miami Herald reported: “Those who knew Sharp before he came to the United States said the high living started long before that.” “Ronnie was quite a character but a… gambler,” said Alan Hutchinson, a football correspondent for the Scotsman and Evening News who had covered Cowdenbeath Football Club when Sharp played there. “He was a very good player. He was attracting the attention of some of the top English clubs.”
The Miami Herald sounded off: “An owner who has admitted a part in a marijuana-smuggling case – the club has shamefully betrayed the trust of South Florida, of the host city and the fans. We’re lucky pro-soccer in this country is no big deal; if it were, our embarrassment would be national news. Ronnie Sharp is a tainted owner now and his continued involvement with Sun will keep the team under a dark cloud. At the next home game against Jacksonville this coming Saturday, Sharp should walk to a microphone in midfield and explain himself and apologize. Then he should step down as club owner. The first step is Ronnie Sharp’s.”
Sharp was released from Webb County Jail after his brief incarceration and celebrated appropriately with a can of Pepsi-Free. One of those arrested had turned informer but Sharp claimed he knew nothing about the marijuana and was willing to take a lie detector test to prove it. Later, though, he pled guilty and was convicted on just one charge: using a telephone to facilitate the commission of a felony.
He was soon forced to sell the Fort Lauderdale Sun after the USL took control of the club. The Sun went on to be USL champions that year prior to ownership being taken away from Sharp. The headline in the Miami Herald read, ‘Sharp wins a title but loses his team’. He sold up to a local consortium, Entertainment Investors Inc., for half a million dollars. Before departing, he accepted the League trophy and tearfully presented all the players with plaques. He suggested that after a rest and when his problems had been solved, plus some of his investments in the UK came in, he would be back as strong as ever. The Sun, though, folded a year later, as did the USL.
Sharp was subsequently based in Mexico. In the early 1990s, Cowdenbeath held a Sportsman’s Dinner at Lochgelly Town Hall to raise funds to help send the youth team to Sweden to play in the Gothia Cup. On the eve of the event, the phone at Central Park rang and someone asked if he could take a table at the event. The name Ronnie Sharp rang no bells with new owner Gordon McDougall but it turned out to be the bold boy himself. A huge sum was raised on the night mainly due to the generous auction bids made by Ronnie Sharp and the friends at his table; £50 notes were being bandied around like confetti. It was his last contact with his old club.
Derek Matthew, son of ex-Cowden boss Andy Matthew, recently recalled: “Not long before my dad passed away, Ronnie visited him in Kirkcaldy. He always was charming and would bring flowers for my mum and stay for tea. This time he borrowed £800 from my dad. He also borrowed money from Jock Forsyth at Glenrothes Juniors. They naturally never saw that money again. At one time I decided to take the family to Florida for a holiday and Dad then phoned up Ronnie. He said we could use an apartment he had over there for free and that he would pick us up at the airport. The flight was a few hours late and when we got there was absolutely no sign of Ronnie. We had nowhere to stay but my sister Lynne was over there and was able to help us out.”
On April 15, 2002, Ronnie Sharp died, aged just 54, in Mexico after a short illness. Central Park veterans recalled with pleasure the glimpses of the great talent the wayward lad showed at Cowdenbeath. It was gratifying that he at least managed to do credit to his undoubted ability for a short time in the US before his lifestyle once more plunged him into chaos. On his day the gambling man was indeed fit to grace the same pitch as Pelé.