Monday 18 February 2019

Family values underpin the shaping of O'Shea's rise

Dion Fanning

With John O'Shea now very much a part of Alex Ferguson's first team plans, Dion Fanning discovers an ordinary young man with the football world at his feet

JIM O'SHEA remembers the day his heart wouldn't stop pounding. Since the age of 14, his son John had been courted by so many clubs that they had stopped answering the phone at home.

The first indication they got that their son could cause a commotion among English clubs was when he travelled to QPR for a trial when he was just 14.

One day into the trial, the boy phoned home and said QPR had called him into the office and offered him a four-year contract. Ron 'Chopper' Harris, who knew a more ruthless profession as a Chelsea enforcer than the elegant game O'Shea wanted to play, was running the youth team at QPR and eager for the boy to sign.

We got a bit of a fright then," Jim O'Shea says. The family decided to wait and see.

The clubs kept coming, but after his parents discussed it with Kevin Moran, who told them that if he was good enough at 16, he'd be good enough at 18, it was decided that he would complete his Leaving Cert before going anywhere.

But English clubs are Jesuitical in their approach.

They want their boys young, to shape them with no guaranteed return for the players, and many walked away when the O'Sheas set out their own plan for their son. All the same, the phone still rang quite a lot.

One day, after John had finished his Leaving and won the U16 European Championship with Ireland, Jim O'Shea answered the phone to Martin Ferguson, Alex's brother and scout for Manchester United.

The boy had talent. Jim, who had been involved in football since he moved from Kilkenny to Waterford in his teens and started watching the great side with Alfie Hale, knew that. But Manchester United was different.

He watched his son go to Manchester with mixed feelings. He watched him return and he didn't know what to say.

His son looked happy. "That's the club I want to play for, Dad." He could feel the pounding in his chest.

"My heart was hopping," Jim O'Shea remembered last week. "How was I going to tell him that maybe United was too much? How would he ever get a chance at a club that size?"

The answer his son gave was the same one he gives today when you ask him why he is at Manchester United. "The manager has promised me that if I prove myself, he will give me a chance."

John O'Shea laughs when it's put him to him that it's a tough job being in competition with a #30m footballer. He remembers his first week in Manchester. At that time, he played midfield as well as centre-half. He moved into digs with two players a centre-half and a midfielder. "Already I was in competition with lads I was meant to be friendly with. But to be fair, those two lads were the reason I settled so quickly in Manchester. One of them was a Geordie and he was a real character and they could see I was homesick so they'd take me out to the cinema or for a game of pool. In the end that year flew by."

Those friendly rivals are no longer there. Of the 18 or so who joined at the same time as him, three himself, Luke Chadwick and Michael Stewart remain. A #30m footballer isn't so terrifying when he looks at some of the people from that time, no longer even playing football.

"I didn't really think about it at the time I joined," he says laughing at the idea that someone could overlook the simple enormity of joining Manchester United. "I didn't think, 'right, I have to get into the first team.' The people there were what mattered.

"I thought 'this will be a good place' and with all the history of the youth team players I thought I'd learn things. I was so close to signing for Celtic, just waiting to dot an i and cross a t, but I think the thing that went against Celtic was the lack of competition in the Scottish League."

Now he is in the first team at the most glamorous and competitive club in Britain. "Everyone says look at the glamour, but you only have that five years later if you're lucky. But the five years before you're working hard. You miss out on a lot of things, but hopefully down the line you get the payback from it."

The competition is always there, especially on the week of a transfer deadline. "You get used to it. This week we've been mentioned with three or four players. We're supposed to be buying four defenders because there's a defensive crisis. Gradually, it's moving off the defence. We might be buying another forward and there's a midfield crisis now and we need a goalkeeper as well. To read the papers, you'd think we had no players at the club."

@@STYL quotes 'My heart was hopping. How was I going to tell him that maybe United was too much? How would he ever get a chance at a club that size?'

The competition, not the glamour, is what he thrives on. O'Shea is in the business for the same reason as Ferguson and Roy Keane, both of whom think highly of him. It's not hard to see why. On the day our interview was arranged, O'Shea returned from training to find a nail in the tyre of the car. Reluctant to drive from his home in the Manchester suburb, he simply hopped on a tram, not bothered by the glances he got.

He is unlikely to be bothered by his manager either. Ferguson recently told Jim O'Shea that his son was a model pro who "had everything I would look for in a young player." When the manager heard that O'Shea had left the digs and moved into his own flat, he used to threaten to call over.

O'Shea would joke that he looked out the window before he answered the door, but maturity is something Ferguson senses innately. "He knows he doesn't have to call over, but he does ask me who's cooking my food every now and then."

His lessons from Keane are constant. "Every day he tells me different things, little things. 'Make sure you're on time. If you don't know the time, make sure you come in early just to make sure you're on time.' All players help you but he is the ultimate professional. You saw it in the European game on Tuesday. He wouldn't let Diego (Forlan) take the penalty and that summed him up totally."

Keane is carrying an injury but O'Shea noticed his dedication. "Some people gave him man of the match he was non-stop for the 90 minutes it wasn't as if he'd dropped off in the last ten. But he was still driving forward. It was funny, he was told to hold the midfield and I said to him, 'Roy, stop bombing on' but he turned round and started laughing."

Keane doesn't always laugh on the pitch and O'Shea has felt the force of his tongue. "It's not pleasant but it kind of makes you perform all the time you don't want to get any more of it so it definitely keeps you on your toes."

O'Shea absorbs everything. His father feels he was learning as a youngster, helping him put up the nets at their club, Ferrybank. "I learned about practice then, I think. Little things that, over time, paid dividends the more you practised kicking, the further the ball went. And we had a biggish back garden where I played with my brother. He was bigger than me so it was good for competition."

The desire was always there. He would put pressure on his father to take him training. He still hasn't lost that appetite.

When he was 14, O'Shea left Ferrybank to join Waterford Bohemians in a move that was frowned upon in some quarters. "Most of them have forgiven me, but there are still a few who bring it up after a couple of pints. I don't know what would sway them back, maybe a ticket for the European Cup final."

It wouldn't be his first major European occasion. "There was a reporter who said to me before we played our first match out in Hungary (in the Champions' League qualifier), 'This will be your biggest match in Europe' and I jokingly said, 'Ah no, I played in a European Cup final before.' He kind of looked at me. 'Just U16 for Ireland. We won the Cup'. But that was a hell of a match back then."

He had his biggest club match ten days ago at Stamford Bridge when he gave the greatest indication yet, against Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Zola and the rest, that he will learn and improve with every challenge.

"I was really looking forward to it. It was the biggest challenge of my career so far when you look at the players I was up against. The manager was there beforehand saying, 'You're going to have to be up for it tonight, Hasselbaink's going to try and bully you.' He was laughing a bit, obviously trying to calm me down, but I wasn't really nervous, I was looking forward to the occasion.

"I was getting text messages from all my friends beforehand and I was really up for it and luckily things went well."

Four days later, O'Shea, despite being man of the match, was dropped for the return leg against Zalaegerszeg. "I said it was the million dollar question when they asked me about Rio coming back. Behind it all I knew it was coming, but I couldn't really say I know I'm going to be on the bench.

"The manager said to me before the game on Tuesday, 'You've played most of the matches and you've done very well, but I'm going to put Rio in ... but you can be proud of what you've done.' I was prepared for it, but I was still disappointed. Mick Phelan one of the coaches came over and asked if I was ok because he could see I was a bit disappointed. You never know what can happen but I know myself now that the manager feels that I'm a contender for that position."

Eventually he should play there alongside Ferdinand. At the moment, Laurent Blanc will complete that partnership and O'Shea understands why.

"He's an easy player to play with. When there's a break in the play, that's when he talks to you. He tells you the little things that are very important. I could be a couple of yards from an offside little things that are very important. Positional sense. He said to me before the Chelsea game, 'Don't leave me with Hasselbaink on his own, make sure we're close together'. Obviously he knows he has to be two yards ahead upstairs.

"The manager was mad for him to stay and you saw at the end of last season why. Now he's started this season in great form as well. When he's talking to you, you know it's not coming from another youngster telling you what to do. He's played at the top his whole career, he's won everything there is to win, so if I can learn from him it's going to be brilliant."

He stored up some little nuggets from Blanc at Stamford Bridge, necessary as he tries to unlock the aggression Ferguson feels would make him the complete centre-back.

"Football's a hard game. You see the pretty side when Beckham scores a free-kick, that's the glamour, but there are crunching tackles and your career could be over in a minute. In what other job could that happen?"

Keeping Hasselbaink quiet is not a bad start. "He's a very strong guy and he does try to bully you. Beforehand Laurent said, 'talk to him, give him a few nudges because he loses concentration'. A couple of times there were a few tussles but I didn't really say anything. Laurent's eyes were on me."

So what did he say to the Dutchman?

"'Well Jimmy boy'. That was about it."

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