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Ask Steve Claridge

Steve Claridge
Claridge is the BBC's Football League expert

Billy Sharp and Lee Barnard are two of the most in-form strikers in the Football League - both of them just cannot stop scoring at the moment.

This week I take a look about why Sharp and Barnard are doing so well and what their next move, if any, should be.

I also give my views on Rochdale's surge to the top of League Two, examine why Ipswich are right to stick with manager Roy Keane and consider whether Sheffield United boss Kevin Blackwell's tactics will lead to the Blades challenging for promotion again this season.

If you have a question for Steve, you can submit it through Twitter at or use the form on the top right of the page.

Steve, with Billy Sharp scoring his eighth goal in eight games for Doncaster on Saturday and netting 10 overall since his loan spell at Rovers started, why do you think it hasn't worked out for him at Sheffield United?
Ben, England

I was speaking about Sharp to Sheffield United player-coach Gary Speed the other day.

Derby 0-2 Doncaster

Sharp was on target again against Derby last weekend

United are a big club and there is more pressure on Sharp, who is a big Blades fan, there than there was at Scunthorpe or there is now at Doncaster. I'm not sure he ever got a foothold in the team when he first went back to Bramall Lane under Bryan Robson in 2007 and he did not start scoring goals immediately.

And, if you don't start well, your confidence can suffer, particularly at a big club. Sharp came from somewhere where he was the first name on the team-sheet and, since Kevin Blackwell took over from Robson at the start of 2008, he has only been peripheral - there are other players ahead of him.

So, from being a bit out in the cold he has gone to Doncaster and suddenly he is the main man again. He is back in the sort of environment he flourished in at Scunthorpe and you cannot overestimate the effect that has on players, particularly strikers - we need to be loved!

I've been reading that Sharp doesn't want to leave Doncaster, despite some interest from Barnsley, and I'm not surprised. He has learnt already that the grass is not always greener - the key for him at the moment is that he is enjoying himself.

Southend's Lee Barnard has scored 16 goals already this season (14 in League One), but he is out of contract in the summer and looks unlikely to sign an extension, despite an offer from Southend. If you were our manager Steve Tilson or chairman Ron Martin, would you accept offers for him in January and earn some vital funds for hard-up Southend or would you keep him until the summer and risk losing him for nothing!? We are hovering in mid-table but the loss of Barnard's goals in January could see us slip into a relegation battle. What would you do?
Jason Jay, England

Sell him. He has scored 16 goals by mid-December and Southend are in mid-table. If they were in the top six, I would say keep him but he is unlikely to have another three months like he has just had and, even if he does, they are unlikely to be challenging for promotion - they are too inconsistent.

I do not think relegation will be an issue either, so they might as well cash in. It obviously depends on what kind of offers they get but, if he is not going to sign his contract, then they may as well let him go.

He is actually one of the players who has benefited from Southend's financial difficulties as he might not have got his chance otherwise - he was not first-choice before.

Southend striker Lee Barnard
Barnard joined Southend from Spurs in January 2008

Lee is a good finisher and a busy striker but it has taken him a while to adjust to the lower divisions after leaving Tottenham a couple of years ago. You see it happen all the time when players leave bigger clubs - sometimes they think they are better than they are and it is a bit of a rude awakening for them to drop down a couple of levels.

It has taken him a little while to find his feet because he is in the big bad world of the Football League and he is not protected in a little bubble like he was at Spurs. Some young players who are released by big clubs go under and you never hear of them again but some, like Barnard, come through.

He has seen one side of the game when he was growing up but knows it is different now. He has knuckled down, got his chance at Southend and taken it - good luck to him.

Could he hack it in the Championship? We don't know. It would be a gamble to sign him but, generally, if you are a good player in a certain division then you will not be out of your depth in the division above.

Once again, Rochdale have put themselves in a fantastic position. We are playing some of the best attacking football in the lower leagues, scoring goals, keeping clean sheets and winning games. We are top of League Two at Christmas and again people are picking us to storm the division and finally win promotion.

However, it looks like we have the same problems as always. Our financial situation means that should we receive bids for any of our top players (eg Chris Dagnall, Jason Kennedy and William Buckley) then we have to sell and we would be back to square one. We've been in this division for 35 years - how can we compete if every year we have to sell our best players? With promotion, we'd be able to keep the likes of the players above and we'd be able to push on. I just can't see it happening.
Elliot Sutcliffe, England

I do not get the impression Rochdale have to sell and I do not get the impression that they are going to sell but the biggest problem looming for them is that the players they have on loan are all due to go back to their parent clubs in January.

Rochdale 4-0 Shrewsbury

Rochdale 4-0 Shrewsbury

But I wouldn't imagine that they will want to leave Spotland - there is something very good happening there and, in any case, they should fight tooth and nail to keep that squad together.

Hopefully they can. It does seem that the club's board, more than any other time, have pushed the boat out a bit for their manager Keith Hill - they have got some good players so I would imagine they are operating with a reasonable budget.

They have got to see the season through now, surely - the way they are playing, they are going to win the title and not just go up - because it is just a case of keeping things ticking over.

There is a big difference in reaching the League Two play-offs, which they have done for the last two seasons, and going straight up but I am not surprised by how well they are doing. Keith has freshened things up by bringing in loan players and he clearly knows his way around the division - I would love to see them go up.

The trend this week or so among Championship clubs appears to be that of sacking the manager. How do you view these sackings? By contrast, as an Ipswich Town supporter, how do you view the fact that the club stuck by Roy Keane, despite the worst start to a season in the club's history?
Nick Chapman, England

The biggest difference between Roy and some of the managers to get sacked in that division recently is that he has only been there since the summer.

Ipswich manager Roy Keane
Keane has had a difficult time since taking charge at Portman Road

But, in any case, you do get the feeling that Ipswich are a club that give their managers a decent crack of the whip. Before appointing Keane, they gave Jim Magilton a lot of money and time and it didn't quite work out for him.

What has happened so far for Keane is bearable for now but that will not last forever. If they are still in the same position - fourth from bottom in the Championship - at the end of the season then he will be out of a job. They finished ninth last season and they should be doing a lot better than they are.

His brief now over the next few months will be steady improvement. If at the end of the season that has not happened then things might be different.

Keane's presence brings its own pressure. The pressure is on his team to perform because they have got a high-profile manager who everybody is looking at, with most people, apart from Ipswich fans, hoping he fails.

So it is hard for him, no doubt about that, but he will have expected to have done better and he will know he has to do better.

But should they have sacked him? No. There was absolutely no point in getting rid of him early in the season.

Is Sheffield United boss Kevin Blackwell adventurous and attack-minded enough to get the Blades into the Premier League?
Sean O'Brien, UK

Sheffield United have played well of late and have been on a really good run. They are seven games unbeaten now and seem to be heading in the right direction.

QPR 1-1 Sheffield United

QPR 1-1 Sheffield United

But you do not have to pull up many trees in the Championship this year to be within touching distance of the play-offs - Watford have lost four of their last five games and are only four points off the top six - and you do not have to be having a particularly good season to be challenging.

United started the campaign poorly but they have come back. I do not agree with what Sean is saying but I do wonder about Kevin's tactical acumen occasionally.

For example, I saw them in the play-offs last season and they were very good in the semi-finals against Preston but played appallingly in the final when they lost to Burnley. They needed to change their approach during that game but didn't, for whatever reason.

Kevin likes to play with some big lads up front - like Darius Henderson and Ched Evans - and the scenario is that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Possibly he needs a Plan B too.

Having said that, I am almost certain they will make the play-offs again this season. They definitely have enough quality in their squad.

Steve Claridge is a BBC Football League pundit who played more than 800 matches for 15 clubs over the course of a 24-year playing career. He was talking to Chris Bevan.

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see also
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BBC wins Football League contract
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