Monday 18 February 2019

O'Shea answering critics on front line

'Understudy' tag masks outstanding successes at Manchester United

John O'Shea has led by example as Sunderland captain
John O'Shea has led by example as Sunderland captain
John O'Shea is a key figure in the Sunderland team, just like he was for Manchester United

Garry Doyle

In sport, there are lies, damned lies and the myth that surrounds John O'Shea's career.

Even now, deep into his third season away from Old Trafford, the Irish international has never fully shaken off the understudy tag – a label John Giles pinned on him in his recently published memoirs.

The issue reappeared again earlier this week when O'Shea was asked whether nerves would get to him ahead of today's Tyne- Wear derby – given the intensity of both the localised rivalry and the Black Cats' battle against relegation.

Polite in his answer, O'Shea spoke in broad terms about coping with the stress of performing under the spotlight before quietly mentioning that he'd played in a few big games before.

In fact, he managed 393 of them for Manchester United, winning five Premier League medals, the FA Cup, Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup and three in the League Cup.

That's a record bettered by only four other Irishmen: Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Heighway.

And yet even a commentator as respected as Giles can fall into the usual trap of questioning O'Shea's mindset when he analysed the Waterford man's career in his book, 'The Great and The Good'.

"I feel for his sake, John should have moved from United earlier," wrote Giles. "There is nothing better than playing week-in and week-out to make the most of your ability."


These days, O'Shea gets that luxury with Sunderland. Approaching a century of appearances for the club, he has the bonus of knowing a trip to Wembley for the League Cup final is on the cards.

Except that each of his three seasons on Wearside has been a battle against relegation.

"There is nothing as stressful in football," he once said. Yet playing week-in, week-out – even in a losing team – is better than sitting on the bench watching your team-mates challenge for trophies at Old Trafford.

While O'Shea may not have been a regular at Old Trafford, the fact is that very few players were in the last decade as Alex Ferguson perfected the art of rotating his squad to facilitate their annual charge for four trophies.

So whereas Sunderland's fans are celebrating the fact they have a date at Wembley – their first League Cup appearance since 1985 and just their third appearance in any cup final since they last won a trophy in 1973 – a cup final appearance is nothing new to O'Shea. After all, he played in six of them in his Old Trafford years.

It should also be pointed out that he played just 11 games less for United than Denis Law did and one fewer than David Beckham and two less than Nobby Stiles.

In fact, from when he made his breakthrough in 2002, through to the year of his departure in 2011, O'Shea played less than 30 games per season just once – in the 2009/10 campaign, which was cut short in November with injury.

The season before, this 'understudy' played 54 games for United – more than Ronaldo, Vidic, Rooney, Evra, Tevez, Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand and Van der Sar.

That wasn't his only prolific season. In 2002-03, he featured in 52 games – five more than he managed the following year. He played 49 times in 2006-07 and 47 times in 2005-06.

Along the way, he also played 83 Champions League games – including the 2009 final – making you question the logic of those who suggest his career would have been better served away from Old Trafford.

Had he been used as sparingly as, say, Darron Gibson, you could understand the case for an earlier O'Shea departure. But in a decade when teams like United averaged 60 games per season, he was much more than a bit-part player.

"What people thought of me in terms of appearances wasn't something that worried me," said O'Shea. "I knew what I was doing."

What he was doing was changing the mould of the modern-day player.

Until O'Shea came along, a 'utility man' was a nice way of describing somebody who couldn't hack it.

Ferguson certainly didn't see O'Shea in those terms. The Waterford man was the player he turned to when there was a problem at right-back, left-back, centre-back and, for two seasons, centre-midfield.

"John is intelligent," Ferguson said in 2005. "You only need to tell him once what to do. His understanding of a role is what makes him such an important part of the place here. He adapts incredibly well."

Yet, the biggest adaptation O'Shea made in his career was not tactical but mental. As a kid he was laid-back, shy of making challenges, ignorant of the importance of being assertive. Then, all of a sudden, in 2001, he changed.

Publicly he put up a guard. And on the field, he toughened up. The good aspects of his game – composure and technical ability – remained. And the capacity to cope with the pressure of the big occasion made – not broke – him.

"You have to credit the manager (Ferguson) for how I developed," he once said. "The steeliness the manager gets into the squad and into the team is important. His team talks are all about managing the occasion and believing that no matter what, you will win.

"Fergie-time is a new phrase that has come into football. To me, Fergie-time started around January, February.

"He put it into his team talks about what way he wanted to approach games – saying, 'don't worry if it is 0-0, don't worry if it is not going our way, just keep going because, while we might lose the odd game, we will win more than we lose'.

"Players never got fazed by the pressure. Last-minute goals are so part of the culture there, that time when other teams are knackered and lose concentration was the time when United come alive. We learnt to love that pressure. I certainly did."

Then in 2011, a new pressure was born when Ferguson brought the Irish international into his office and told him that United had accepted a bid from Sunderland. His time in Manchester was up.

"I wasn't hurt," said O'Shea. "C'est la vie. I am enjoying my football in Sunderland."


While the added responsibility of being a leader – "Martin O'Neill, when he was manager here, spoke specifically to me about being vocal from my position and organising things" – was a positive, the busy turnaround in the dug-out – four managers coming and going in two-and-a-half years – has been a downside.

So too was Paolo Di Canio's description of him last week as "two-faced".

Those who have played with him suggest that the opposite is true.

"John is one of life's gentlemen," said Stephen Hunt of his friend. "You have to admire him for all he has achieved in the game."

And he wants to achieve more – not just as a player with Sunderland but also as a manager.

"You see the joys and rewards that come from managing, the satisfaction you must get from building a successful team. I have thought about it but who knows?"

Before he thinks about it in any more detail, he has another relegation battle to win. That is the price you pay for becoming 'a regular' away from Old Trafford.

Irish Independent

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