Stage set for our best-paid sportsman to prove real worth
John O'Shea can justify €90,000-a-week wage by bringing stability and leadership to Irish defence
ACCORDING to a recent study, he draws down the biggest wage in Irish sport. Tomorrow night in the heat of Skopje, John O'Shea really needs to justify that lofty position for the sake of his country.
Minus the suspended Richard Dunne, and with concerns about the fitness and competence of those around him, the onus is on the Waterford man to bounce back from the pain of missing out on the Champions League final, and take on a leading role in Giovanni Trapattoni's defence for the crucial Euro 2012 qualifier.
Huge responsibility rests on his shoulders. A fair enough pressure, you might say, for a man who is reportedly on a €4.6m-a-year contract, and that's before you factor in bonuses and endorsements.
Sure, if Padraig Harrington or Graeme McDowell enjoy a successful year in the lucrative world they inhabit, they will take in more cash during a 12-month period. For example, 'Golf Digest' reckoned that McDowell coined in €7.3m during his remarkable 2010.
However, their yearly earnings will fluctuate, and they couldn't get away with putting the clubs away for the year. O'Shea, on the other hand, is in a comfortable position of knowing that even if he doesn't kick a ball at Manchester United, his money is guaranteed.
A study conducted by 'ESPN' magazine placed O'Shea at the top of the Irish salary tree for 2010, estimating his weekly wage at close to €90,000.
His international team-mate Shay Given is in a similar ballpark. Fittingly, that duo will be central to Trapattoni's chances of getting the optimum result in Skopje.
How has O'Shea progressed to the rich list? Longevity at one of the world's biggest clubs has eventually paid off.
Rugby followers will deride the fact that a squad player rakes in approximately 10 times as much as icons like Jamie Heaslip, Brian O'Driscoll or Jonathan Sexton, genuine superstars who have carried their team to success.
But that argument rarely takes into consideration the simple reality that football's wealth is driven by its global reach, by TV rights and worldwide commercial dreams that add the extra zeros on the payslip. One or two years in the first team at Old Trafford will make you wealthy; lasting for 10 brings O'Shea to a different plateau.
The campaign just gone, however, has featured some disappointment, none more so than failing to even make the bench in Wembley last Saturday. The hamstring injury which he suffered in March checked a little bit of momentum, and Fabio da Silva was deemed more suitable for the task.
In general terms, however, O'Shea's ability to accept such setbacks is part of what makes him indispensable. He has never really enjoyed a sustained run in the team for any more than half a season.
Indeed, his most impressive period was ahead of the previous Champions League final with Barcelona in 2009, when he was an automatic pick for Rome. It's been a bit of a struggle since the dead leg he sustained in the infamous World Cup play-off with France later that year developed into a blood clot that could have had devastating implications.
Amid the storm surrounding Thierry Henry, and the alternative Roy Keane-driven view that Ireland got what they deserved because they missed chances, the impact of O'Shea's forced withdrawal early in the second half was largely overlooked.
His assured contribution at right-back was central to Ireland's solidity. Unfortunately, his replacement Paul McShane, for all his admirable effort, failed to bring the same composure. Perhaps O'Shea would have dealt with the free-kick that led to the 'hand of Henry' in a different fashion.
Richard Dunne is the leader of the Irish defence, though, a player with the character to take control and pull those around him through sticky situations.
Think Sofia two years ago, when Bulgaria were applying second-half pressure. Dunne stood firm, and coached rookie Sean St Ledger through the game.
Now Trapattoni needs that type of performance from O'Shea.
When Dunne picked up a second yellow card at home to Macedonia in March, the 72-year-old instantly decided that for the return, he would have to relocate his first-choice right-back. "We need the experience," he stressed.
O'Shea coped with plenty of criticism in the spring of his Irish career, particularly for his frequent lapses in concentration. There's a swathe of United followers who remain sceptical -- inevitably, perhaps, given the marquee performers dotted around him.
In his country's dressing-room, where there is no such depth of talent, O'Shea's quality is appreciated. Even in training, the surety of his first touch is obvious, a skill honed by working with some of the best in the business every day.
Under Trapattoni, he has been a model of consistency. The Italian's initial instinct was to make Dunne and O'Shea his centre-halves. The emergence of St Ledger allowed him to move O'Shea to the flank, where his guile could support Ireland going forward. The brief for this sapping challenge is different.
Trapattoni believes that Macedonia will seek to use their height advantage to pummel long balls in the direction of the Irish back four. He wants his defensive leader to be calling the shots, doing the bellowing and bollocking and organising. O'Shea will have to respond to that task.
His desire to make next summer in Poland and Ukraine is strong. With five Premier League medals, and one FA Cup and Champions League success to his name, the boy who was part of Brian Kerr's 1998 U-16 European Championship winning team has gone on to tick most of the boxes.
Representing his country at senior level in a major tournament is something he desperately wants to achieve. In 2002, he was considered too callow. There'd be more chances, they said. After turning 30 last month, he is all too aware that time isn't on his side any longer.
Surviving Macedonia unscathed is essential. For O'Shea, it is the perfect stage to demonstrate his worth.