Monday 22 April 2019

Comment - John O'Shea's Sunderland struggles show that Robbie got it right

John O'Shea. Photo: Getty Images
John O'Shea. Photo: Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Last week, Robbie Keane was part of a pre-season training prank which, had it not been caught on camera and posted online, wouldn't even have merited mentioning again around the team's dinner table that evening.

It involved Keane's team - Indian Super League champions Atletico de Kolkata, in case you didn't know - touring horse-racing stables during their three-week training camp in Dubai. When team-mate Carl Baker is encouraged to look into one of the stables to see a Shetland Pony, Keane jumps out and, in the way that a bunch of lads do, everyone laughs a little more than they should.

Keane looked pretty happy with himself and why wouldn't he? At 37, he is playing at a level where he will undoubtedly score goals and be well paid for it, safe in the knowledge that, as he has been doing since joining LA Galaxy, he will rarely be tested to his limit.

For all the talk of improvement in the MLS, Keane practically retired from club football when he went to LA. But seems to have enjoyed the past six years immensely since he made that move at the age of 31. Arguably, it wasn't the best transfer for Keane's career but it's unlikely he has too many regrets.

A month before Keane's move to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, John O'Shea swapped the Theatre of Dreams for what has proved to be the Stadium of Nightmares.

Sunderland are exactly the sort of team which Keane could have joined, toiled, circled the drain and eventually sank to the point where they now find themselves bottom of the Championship with just over a third of the season gone.

The day before Keane's prank, Sunderland played Bolton Wanderers in a relegation battle and found themselves 2-1 up on the hour, 3-2 down with 10 minutes remaining, before eventually drawing 3-3. It was far from their worst result of the season but was enough to convince the board that Simon Grayson had to go.

It meant that O'Shea, who had listened to one managerial voice in the Manchester United dressing-room in the 12 years from making his debut in 1999, was now faced with the situation of his 11th in six years at Sunderland, including the many caretakers.

O'Shea was signed by Steve Bruce in July 2011 before Bruce was sacked four months later; Eric Black stepped in for one match before Martin O'Neill was appointed and lasted what now resembles a 16-month dynasty.

O'Neill was sacked in March 2013 in the first example of the board's 'dead-cat bounce' approach to survival as Paulo Di Canio's madness kept them afloat. Kevin Ball came in for a few weeks when Di Canio was sacked, then Gus Poyet arrived, followed by Dick Advocaat and then Sam Allardyce.

The club were probably a little unlucky that the national team is such that just nine wins from 31 games made Allardyce the outstanding candidate for the England job, but the decision to replace him with David Moyes smacked of a board who hadn't been paying attention to the sport for a couple of years.

After Grayson was sacked, O'Shea himself was cut by one bookmaking firm to odds-on to be the next manager which, even allowing for his UEFA coaching badges, would be the equivalent of learning how to cycle a bike by riding the Tour de France.

Instead, it was Robbie Stockdale and Billy McKinley who took charge - which, technically, means O'Shea has had 12 managers at Sunderland - for yesterday's defeat against Middlesbrough.

As he has done throughout his career, O'Shea adapted to his level which, when United were playing in the Champions League, meant he could hold his own against Real Madrid. It also means, however, that he doesn't look particularly out of place in a team struggling to stay in the Championship.

Yesterday, there was a couple of fine defensive headers, a few interceptions and lots of talking where he optimistically urged his team-mates to be calm in possession, forgetting that, if they could do it, they wouldn't be playing with Sunderland.

The winning goal came from a miscommunication between O'Shea and Marc Wilson which allowed Martin Braithwaite to square the ball for Marcus Tavernier to score. That Braithwaite lost O'Shea so easily but can only get on stand-by for the Denmark squad may be cause for concern, although the fact that Tavernier was born six months before O'Shea made his United debut may also play on his mind.

O'Shea has suffered a peculiar fall where, having been with one of the biggest clubs in England through one of its most dominant period, he now finds himself at a place where losing is the norm.


In the 254 league games in which O'Shea featured for United, they lost 38 times, a figure which was reached comfortably within 100 games as a Sunderland player.

In his first full season as a United player, O'Shea played 32 league games in the 2002/'03 season and was part of the winning team for 21 of them. By comparison, in the last three full seasons plus the 16 games of this one, Sunderland have won 20 times in the 102 games that O'Shea has featured.

O'Shea was part of the winning team in the league 169 times at United, but to reach that tally at Sunderland, where he has won 48 times in 198 league games, he would, at the current rate, have to stay at the Stadium of Light until 2030. And nobody would wish that on their worst enemy.

With both of Ireland's first-choice centre-backs one yellow card away from suspension, O'Neill may yet need O'Shea for the second leg and what would be his 118th cap in a stellar career that appears to be coming to an ignominious end.

O'Shea felt a pain in his calf yesterday but will still report for Ireland duty this week. Anything to escape the pain in the a*** that his club career has become.

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