Tuesday 21 November 2017

'The future is scary, it's daunting but it's also exciting' - John O'Shea

EXCLUSIVE: John O'Shea is still learning as he embarks on another Ireland campaign and is thinking about where life will take him when his playing career ends

John O’Shea enjoys Irish victories more than ever Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
John O’Shea enjoys Irish victories more than ever Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

At the start of this week, John O'Shea found himself in a discussion about travelling with the taxi driver who was bringing him to the Irish team hotel.

They were talking about Moldova, a new destination in the storied career of a 35-year-old who has an abundance of stamps in his passport.

He has built up quite a collection from eight campaigns with his country and multiple journeys around the world in his Manchester United days. The senior pro knows the drill at this stage. Footballers see the world in a different way, in the sense that they go to a lot of places without ever experiencing them.

"You might see the hotel, the stadium and the airport," he laughs. "You might see a coffee shop and maybe a park you walk around on the morning of the game but that's it. At my age, I'm well used to it."

This is the hard graft of international football - "the dirty stuff" as he calls it - the time that a senior pro could be spending with family or resting the limbs to preserve his club situation.

O'Shea habitually wiles away the hours. He works through the box-sets on his trips; he was a fan of The Killing on Netflix and is now immersed in Ray Donovan, a crime drama about an Irish-American.

But he likes to read a book as well. He's just completed The Secret Race, the autobiography of ex-cyclist Tyler Hamilton, after a recommendation from Aiden McGeady.

It explores the mind of the one-time team-mate of Lance Armstrong who ultimately decided to play his part in revealing the horrible truth of doping in the sport.

"I finished it there now," he says, sitting back in a chair at Ireland's team hotel in Castleknock. "Obviously I've read a bit of the other stuff before, the Lance stuff. I read David Walsh's books and Paul Kimmage's books and you're up to date on it. And it's back in the news with the stuff with the TUEs and Team Sky.

"It's very interesting because they were competing at such an intense level. It just shows you. There was ways. When you're reading about the doctors who were involved in it, Spain and the other countries, you're thinking 'How rampant is it maybe in other sports?'

"In your sport?" he is asked


"Well, you want to think it's clean but it makes you think," he replies, "Without a doubt."

O'Shea thinks about things which other footballers are unlikely to ponder. That's one quality that marks him out. His good friend Stephen Hunt has always praised his intelligence and believes he's a natural fit for progression to the dugout.

"John is PR-perfect so he will go into management the way he is," said Hunt last year. "He says the right things at the time, thinks about what he says, very intelligent."

The subject of those compliments is unlikely to ever publicly agree with assessment, which probably backs up Hunt's point, but he concedes that his mind is now turning towards to the next step.

His appetite for learning is tied in with that; he absorbs information and studies managers.

"I was fortunate," he smiles, "That for a large chunk of my career I just had one voice." Alex Ferguson's name is big enough to go unsaid.

"The last few years there have been different voices, different ideas. Every manager, whether it's Martin O'Neill, Sam Allardyce, Dick Advocaat, David Moyes. . . If I'm not learning from them, I'm doing something wrong."

Persistent turbulence at Sunderland has given O'Shea an insight into life in a totally different environment to where he spent his formative days. Highs and lows did always pepper his Irish existence and he has built up a reservoir of knowledge from that national service.

In June, he stood on the pitch after the final whistle in Lyon wondering if this was going to be the end. Shay Given and Robbie Keane were looking out at the Irish supporters knowing their time was up. O'Shea gave it a few weeks, and a discussion with O'Neill encouraged him to stay on.

"I just thought that mind, body and soul were all good so there was no point stopping doing something that I love doing," he explains, admitting that it's strange without some of his old pals. The newcomers these days are born in the 1990s.

O'Shea watched Robbie Brady instantly recognise first-time call-up Danny Rogers, the Falkirk keeper, and remembered when the cubs were his old pals from the underage scene. "This is the natural progression," he shrugs.

In the aftermath of France, O'Neill said he wanted the Waterford man to stick around, referencing how well he'd handled the decision to drop him midway through the tournament in favour of a Richard Keogh-Shane Duffy partnership. The stupid and obvious question to ask is if he found it difficult.

"Of course it was," he says. "For the previous 114 games I'd played when I had been available. So in that sense, it was very difficult but, look, that's the manager's prerogative. You have to get behind the lads.

"I'd hate to be the type of player that is seen to be sulking and upsetting the camp. You're in that competition mode, it's a short spell, so get behind everyone."

That patience was tested again on Thursday when he was consigned to the bench behind Duffy and Ciaran Clark and only called upon for a stoppage-time cameo. Nothing is guaranteed now.

The loss of status in France provided a bittersweet end to a month that had delivered a superior tournament experience to Poland 2012. He lived through moments that were worthy of celebration and it had extra meaning as his kids, Alfie and Ruby, were around to be a part of it.

He does enjoy the wins more now because he gets the context. Of course, there are bad memories that linger. O'Shea is reminded that it's decade since an especially grim Irish trip, the 5-2 loss in Cyprus that derailed Steve Staunton.

The experience of those darker days makes the good ones special and he prefers to talk about yesterday's happy anniversary, one year on from the epic defeat of Germany that ended questions about this generation's inability to beat decent sides.

"We hadn't given the fans that big win at home for a long time," he acknowledges, conscious that question marks about a real winning mentality had hung over his generation.

There is enthusiasm in his voice as he discusses the permutations for a competitive group and, while his playing story is not over, it's clear that the possibilities offered by his trade still make him tick.

Unlike Richard Dunne, who opted to quit and get out of the business, you sense O'Shea will dive straight into his next challenge.

"Who knows?" he chuckles. "In a few years' time, I could be chilling in Waterford not doing anything. Or go out and join Dunny in Monaco. But no, I definitely feel like I'd want to get involved in football.

"It would be nice to have a definite idea. If you're going to get a job straight away, if an opportunity comes up should you go for it. Or whether you would take a youth team job. I'll finish my A Licence now and then the next thing will be Pro Licence. It's just about being ready.

"You look at the last week and the teams that have changed managers so quickly.

"You know how difficult it is. Personally you just hope you'd have a bit to offer. It's scary, it's daunting but also exciting too. A new venture, a new career path maybe."

The next book on his list is by a basketball coach, Tim Grover, who explains how he brought Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and other stars to another level. It's called Relentless.

O'Shea's long unbroken career from his teens to his 30s could equally be described in those terms. There's plenty of miles on the clock, but he's always had his eyes on the road ahead.

Irish Independent

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