Monday 18 February 2019

O'Shea is shedding his bit-part club status to lead Trap's revolution

liam kelly

JOHN O'Shea is too good to be a one-club utility player.

Look at his attributes. The scouting report opens with glowing positives: tall (6ft 3ins), great upper body strength, two-footed, good balance, poise and temperament.

Can play anywhere across the back four and midfield, and if required, could probably do the job as a target man, although to date neither his club boss Alex Ferguson nor his various Irish managers have asked him.

Good engine. When he plays full-back he can get up and down the line to support the midfield and front men as often as is required. A fine passer of the ball. Almost forgot -- fancies himself as a goalkeeper too.

Very handy when, as happened in February 2007, he took over in goal against Spurs as emergency stand-in when Edwin van de Sar got his nose broken in a challenge with Ireland's Robbie Keane. Character? Loyal, adaptable, patient.

Never been known to feature in pub brawls, or make a late night/early morning call to Ferguson asking the boss to come down to the nick and post bail, as has happened some of his esteemed colleagues.

Committed to the team and squad ethic. Resilient, yet determined.

Performances? Overall steady, consistent, reliable. Injury-prone? No.

First team experience? Over 325 appearances for his club, including winners' medals in the Premier League, Carling Cup, FA Cup, and Champions League.


That all adds up to a serious asset for any football club. So why hasn't O'Shea been a €10 to €15m transfer buy for other leading Premier League teams?

And why has he not been straining at the leash to claim a first-team place in his own right instead of filling in for the likes of Mikael Silvestre, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and even Roy Keane since his first full season in 2002/03?

There are simple answers, and arguably more complex issues.

First the simple answer. On one level O'Shea would be crazy to leave the top club in England and Europe when he has a role to play in the annual pursuit of trophies and titles.

The money is good, and the environment at United is geared to success. He can argue that anywhere else would be a step down.

And he just happens to be having one of his best seasons of recent years, something which is making critics sit up and take notice of his maturity as he nears his 28th birthday on April 30.

But is there a level of comfort about O'Shea's situation? Is he prepared to sit on his contract until 2012 and remain a squad player? Is that the height of his ambition at the peak of his physical powers?

It might sound ridiculous to speak about comfort for any Manchester United player. As a football club it's a hotbed of competitiveness, but United is more than a football club -- it's also a multi-national juggernaut, unstoppable in its pursuit of success. They scour the world for the best young talent; they spend multi-millions buying established stars; they chew up and spit out those who are not good enough or who have served their purpose. Sentiment is akin to sediment in football at any level, but particularly at Manchester United.

In that environment, we can be sure that John O'Shea watches the arrival of every young defender or midfielder and makes sure he's as sharp and motivated as ever to keep up his standards.

But is this enough for a player once tipped as a possible Manchester United captain?

The truth is that between the evolving nature of the game and his own 'gentle giant' persona, it probably is.

O'Shea has been a great servant to United as a famed utility player, the dependable guy that can be thrown into virtually any position and keep his end up. He fits the profile that football nowadays is a game of squads, not teams.

The era when Manchester United, Leeds United and Liverpool played their best XI week in, week out, changing only for injuries through a 60 or 70-game season, is history.

Players accept it more now when they're out of the side. You can't say that most of them like it, but sitting out matches is more acceptable to them than it would have been to the men of yesteryear such as Denis Law, John Giles or Graeme Souness. As a character, O'Shea comes across as bright, intelligent and thoughtful, just the way he plays.

There is a suggestion, a mere hint, of softness, that is probably to his credit as a person but which arguably contributes to him metaphorically being on the shoulders of Ferdinand and Vidic, but not their equal in the eyes of Ferguson.

For example, in his hundreds of first-team matches for United, O'Shea has never been sent off, something that looks good when the 'fair play' awards are being handed out, but which speaks to a tendency towards the angelic rather than the devilish aspects of defending.

The roots of his nature are contained in his family. Jim and Mary O'Shea from Waterford reared their son well and did all they could to nurture his talent.

His sporting prowess came with a level of intelligence and, unusual for teenagers, an agreement with his parents on a key issue: they urged him to finish his education at De La Salle, Waterford before entering the uncertain world of professional soccer.

Over 20 clubs, including Arsenal, Liverpool and Celtic, sought O'Shea's signature, but schooling came first.

And when Manchester United came calling in 1998, and offered a three-year deal as a professional, doing away with the need to go through the YTS scheme, O'Shea had no hesitation.

Even at that age he could have secured higher wages from other top clubs, but United and Ferguson proved an irresistible combination.

Mind you, as O'Shea revealed, the gaffer at first thought they were offering a three-month contract -- and a much relieved O'Shea heard United's academy director Les Kershaw correct the great man, saying, "no, boss, it's different with John. We're giving him a three-year contract".

Ferguson stressed repeatedly that at Old Trafford, the Waterford lad would learn in "the best environment" -- and with the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville around, he and the other young Reds had some serious tutors. Once he had settled in and become a regular with the reserves, Ferguson gave O'Shea his debut against Aston Villa in October 1999, but later decided he needed toughening up.

The youngster was despatched first to Bournemouth in early 2000, and later to Royal Antwerp in the 2000/01 season. Mick McCarthy capped O'Shea against Croatia in August 2001, but it was during the 2002/03 season that he really burst on the United scene.

Among the highlights was his classy nutmeg on Luis Figo in the Champions League clash with Real Madrid that season, something United fans still relish. Almost six years later, O'Shea is well established as 'Mr Versatile'at United, but the compensation in terms of financial and on-field success have been considerable.

For Ireland, he has earned 51 caps, and is clearly benefiting from Giovanni Trapattoni's decision to regularly partner him with Richard Dunne at the heart of the Irish defence.

O'Shea has responded with some fine displays, making you wonder how good he would be if Ferguson had taken the plunge years ago and given him the responsibility of being a first-choice centre-back at United.

That won't happen now. The mould is set for O'Shea at United, but at international level, Signor Trapattoni takes a different view.

Once he's fit and available, O'Shea is one of the first names on Trap's team-sheet. That, at least, is a dependable certainty for the player and the country.

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