Sunday 22 September 2019

'A perfect role model for durability in a cut-throat profession' - Why history will be kind to John O'Shea

History will be kind to the long-serving Ireland defender after a career spent at the top level

John O’Shea celebrating after scoring the goal against Germany in Gelsenkirchen in 2014 during the Euro 2016 qualifier. Photo: Cuneyt Karadag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
John O’Shea celebrating after scoring the goal against Germany in Gelsenkirchen in 2014 during the Euro 2016 qualifier. Photo: Cuneyt Karadag/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was always a feeling that John O'Shea's career would only ever really be appreciated in hindsight.

The reaction to his Irish retirement - with the player still keen to keep going at club level - brings home that point.

At a time where players from these parts are struggling to break into the Premier League, never mind compete for a side at the top end of it, O'Shea's exploits read extremely well on paper.

With five Premier League titles on his CV and a part in a Champions League success too, he is one of the most decorated Irish players of all-time.

The fact that he wasn't quite a leading light for United, whereas his fellow countrymen Roy Keane and Denis Irwin were indispensable in their pomp, perhaps shaped the perception of his contribution.

He was a jack of all trades rather than the master of one, and Alex Ferguson used him to plug holes across the back four, midfield and even a five-minute cameo as a goalkeeper when Edwin van der Sar was crocked in a Premier League game with Spurs.

John O’Shea in Scotland with the Irish U-16s squad in May 1998. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
John O’Shea in Scotland with the Irish U-16s squad in May 1998. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

That versatility could be a blessing and a curse, for it masked the fact that it takes an unbelievable amount of ability to survive at a club such as United for that long. He was a solid professional and a solid character, which surely helped too, but there were plenty of individuals with those attributes that were shown the door. O'Shea lasted the course because he ticked all of the boxes.

It is possible to argue, however, that the uncertainty around his best position had some kind of detrimental impact on his Irish career. Stand back now and a haul of 117 caps, with another to come in a June 2 tribute with the USA, is an impressive body of work.

He was involved in eight different qualifying campaigns, and could have preceded that by travelling to the World Cup in Korea & Japan in 2002. Mick McCarthy opted against bringing the youth, a view that Roy Keane disagreed with.

O'Shea was eventually given his opportunity by Brian Kerr but, similar to his time at United, he would fill a variety of different roles across campaigns. He was shifted from left-back to right-back and to centre-back without ever making any one position his own for a sustained period of time.

In contrast to his formative days at United, where he was a relatively inexperienced player surrounded by elite performers, there was a real sense with Ireland that he should take responsibility because of his club status.

Let's not rewrite history here; mistakes were made as he found his way in a different set-up. And he didn't necessarily have the same quality of player around to dig him out of a hole on the bad days.

The nadir of Steve Staunton's troubled tenure was a 5-2 loss to Cyprus where O'Shea toiled at left-back.

It is often said that Ireland's players view international breaks as a good escape from the bread and butter of their club football existence.

But at that juncture, O'Shea was coming out of one of the strongest dressing rooms in European club football and into an international environment where both managers and players were really struggling. It was quite a contrast that would even up later in his career, when Irish trips must have been a release from the Sunderland circus.

In truth, his better Irish performances came in the second half of his journey. The appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni did bring defensive stability, although there was movement again.

Initially, Trapattoni seemed set to go with Richard Dunne and O'Shea as a defensive partnership. It changed as his maiden campaign evolved with O'Shea sent out to replace the faltering Paul McShane at right full, a move that paved the way for Sean St Ledger to come in.

One factor in the 2009 play-off defeat to France that ultimately got lost in the fraught aftermath was the impact of an injury to O'Shea that forced him off midway through the second half.

McShane was summoned off the bench and was an unfortunate supporting actor in the build-up to the drama around Thierry Henry's infamous handball.

It was a tad harsh on McShane when Keane, then Ipswich boss, pointed out his role in a TV rant. But it's not a stretch to say that O'Shea might have dealt with the situation better. He was destined not to get to a World Cup.

Still, there were happier times to come in a green shirt, albeit with an asterisk. Qualification for the Euro 2012 finals was a significant personal achievement as it finally gave him a shot at a major tournament.

But O'Shea was one of the Ireland players that went into that competition short of full fitness after a long season and it did show in a Polish adventure that developed into a major anti-climax.

The road to France, with Martin O'Neill at the helm, was smoother. When Richard Dunne retired, O'Shea became the senior centre-half. If Dunne will be remembered for Moscow, O'Shea's big night was in Gelsenkirchen when he marked his 100th cap with a sweet injury-time equaliser away to Germany in 2014 - he was later named senior player of the year. He was also the skipper for the return victory against the world champions in Dublin.

O'Neill did mix things up during the tournament in France with O'Shea and Ciaran Clark replaced by Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy halfway through.


But his influence was positive and the Derryman was keen for the veteran to stick around and contribute to the attempt to make this summer's finals in Russia. O'Shea did his bit when called upon and his last full outing, the scoreless draw with Wales in Dublin, was notable for Ireland's mature defensive display.

They managed to keep Gareth Bale at arm's length, and O'Shea was central to that.

Indeed, he was lucky to escape serious injury after a rash challenge by Bale just minutes before Coleman was struck down.

He had to settle for a spectating role in the autumn, and there was never going to be any histrionics from the old-timer with the passing of the torch confirmed.

His parting letter was typically thoughtful, with references to his father Jim and his friend Liam Miller - both of whom passed away in the last year.

As a member of Brian Kerr's U-16 champions in 1998, he also extended best wishes to Colin O'Brien's squad who are currently immersed in tournament mode.

In O'Shea, they have a perfect role model for durability in a cut-throat profession. If any of them go on to achieve half as much, they will have done exceptionally well.


DOB: April 30, 1981

Place of birth: Waterford

Clubs: Man United, Royal Antwerp (loan), Bournemouth (loan), Sunderland

Senior debut (for Man U): v Aston Villa, 1999

Ireland caps: 116

Ireland debut: v Croatia, 2001


Premier League titles (5): 2002/03, 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09, 2010/11

Champions League (1): 2007/08

FA Cup (1): 2003/04

League Cup (2): 2005/06, 2008/09

FIFA World Club Cup (1): 2008


U-16 European Championship 1998

Senior Player of the Year 2014

Irish Independent

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