Monday 19 November 2018

John O'Shea reveals how close he came to joining Liverpool and opens up about World Cup ambitions

John O'Shea feared his Ireland career could have ended in Wales but he wants Russia swansong

John O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile
John O'Shea. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

Victory over Wales in Cardiff, second place, Ireland's name in the draw for Tuesday's play-off. Of course there had been total belief among Martin O'Neill and his players that they would prevail.

But John O'Shea, the veteran of the Irish squad, has admitted that he did contemplate international retirement in the build-up to Monday's showdown.

The Sunderland captain, on the bench for most of this World Cup campaign, can now bag or drag at least another month out of returning home to represent his country. The farewell to Ireland is on hold. Never in doubt.

O'Shea knows he may not add to his 116 caps if the road to Russia ends next month but he relishes his role in the squad, and is desperate to go to the World Cup.

"If the results didn't go our way, I knew I would have to think about it but thankfully it didn't come to that," he says. "We got over the line thanks to that great goal from James (McClean), and you can keep believing and having that hope.

"Ultimately I want to keep playing. Obviously the club football, the bread and butter, is the most important thing. I want to play for Sunderland. International football has always been the icing on the cake for me, but hopefully it will continue for a little bit longer.

"At one stage we were thinking we could win the group, then suddenly, would we struggle to qualify for the play-offs? Then it came down to the Wales game and there was still a chance to qualify automatically, as we knew Georgia would give Serbia a good game.

"We had to focus on beating Wales. It was a classic win, in that the first goal was always going to be important. We soaked it up, as we have shown we can so many times over the years away from home. Ever since I have been involved with Ireland, whatever group we have or personalities in the team, we have always given it our all, and you just hope it goes for you, as it did the other night, when the boys were superb.

"That is just the first hurdle. We know they are all good teams in the play-offs, but we have a good squad as well. No teams will want to play us and it is great to be in the mix. Fingers crossed, the referee and assistant referees will be spot on."

Speaking at the Sunderland training ground on Friday morning, O'Shea was still positively beaming. And who can blame him. Not many Sunderland players have had that winning feeling any morning over the last couple of years. Just ask Jonny Williams, the Welsh midfielder who came on for the injured Joe Allen, who has yet to win a game since joining on loan from Crystal Palace.

As soon as Simon Grayson became Sunderland manager in June, O'Shea signed a new two-year deal. Aiden McGeady and Marc Wilson have also joined Darron Gibson at this troubled club in England's north-east. In danger of slipping from the Championship, Grayson has been unable to halt the slide, his hands tied by mind-boggling financial restrictions. He has one of the highest-paid squads in the league but cannot sign a striker.

O'Shea made his first start of the season a fortnight ago at Preston, keeping Sean Maguire under wraps, and he played the full 90 minutes in yesterday's draw with QPR, which wasn't enough to get Sunderland out of the bottom three.

He knows the clock is ticking. But he knew that four years ago when his Irish team-mates mocked him and Glenn Whelan. It was June, the last games of the season. The rest of the lads were heading for the sun. O'Shea and Whelan were signed up for an FAI coaching course. They have both recently received their UEFA A licences.

"They were laughing at us because we were coming back to Dublin for a week to 10 days and they were going off on their holidays," he says. "I am sure a few of those boys are thinking they should have done it now. It was something I wanted to have done and be ready for while I was still playing, whether I do or don't go into it.

"It's great. The FAI realised when Shay (Given) and Killa (Kevin Kilbane) went up to Northern Ireland to do their courses that something had to be done and we got on board with that. We started three or four years ago doing blocks every summer.

"It's a work in progress, wait and see. Initially, in my head, I see management but it sounds very easy and I don't think it is. It is a question of getting a job in the first place, and when you see the turnaround of managers and coaches it is a mental one to get your head around. It is good to be prepared for it, if I do fancy it. When we got them, Wheelo was laughing, saying he was going to throw his name in for a few jobs now, but we might wait."

It should come as no surprise that O'Shea is prepared for the future. This is the boy who delayed his career at Manchester United to finish his Leaving Certificate in Waterford. His dad, Jim, who sadly passed away in April, was a great football man but his wife Mary insisted John finish his studies.

O'Shea explains: "I was fairly relaxed about it because Kevin Moran said 'if there are a few teams looking at him now, there will still be a few teams looking at him when he's finished'. So we took that advice. We (Ireland) won the European Championship in Scotland in '98 and I was practically going to Celtic when Manchester United came in at the last minute and we/I changed my mind. My dad would have had me there the next day but my mam insisted, thankfully . . . well I say thankfully, it worked out OK.

"Liverpool wanted me to come over every weekend and we said we couldn't do that and they said 'bye, bye' which was a tough one. I went to QPR, had a week's trial and they offered a four-year deal, which was tough to turn down.

"It worked out OK. United were fine, because that was the agreement. It was never a problem, so everyone was happy. But it was weird. It was a strange year. There was a lot of football involved and I did OK with the studies, passed everything with a few honours.

"I did start an Open University degree, in social science . . . something like that, it's so long ago I can't remember. Then I went out on loan to Bournemouth and then Royal Antwerp and I knew I had to park it."

O'Shea made 393 appearances for United, winning five Premier League titles, the Champions League and an FA Cup. He has made 218 appearances for Sunderland and 116 for Ireland (and counting). The story has a little way to run yet.

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