Saturday 17 March 2018

The Great Survivor

Paul McShane wearing the captain’s armband at Reading. Photo: PA
Paul McShane wearing the captain’s armband at Reading. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

At Old Trafford today, the focus will be on the former Manchester United centre-half that reached the peak of his profession when he was there. The other ex-United defender, a man who left the club in order to find his way in the football world, will slip under the radar.

Poking fun at Paul McShane once threatened to become a national pastime but the Reading captain looks like having the last laugh...

Paul McShane's presence always means something to Jaap Stam, though. The alliance might be an unlikely one but the appointment of the Dutchman as Reading's manager has been the catalyst for what could turn out to be the best season of McShane's career.

In fact, it's going so well that he is due to be taken out of the firing line for today's lunchtime FA encounter back at the club where he started his English journey as a raw teenager.

Stam has been the man in demand in the build-up and Reading had planned to roll McShane out for press duties on Thursday too given the week that's in it until it emerged he needed belated treatment on a hand injury he sustained on St Stephen's Day.

With league matters taking precedence, he's expected to sit this one out as he recuperates, a disappointment even though he's already gone back to United as a player with Sunderland and Hull.

The reality is that McShane has bigger things to plan than a cup upset, thriving in a position of responsibility that few could have envisaged him assuming during the rocky periods of a career where he was frequently a source of derision - particularly closer to home.

But look at him now. He turned 31 yesterday and he can reflect with satisfaction on his current position as the captain of a decent club that is third in the Championship and well on the way to mounting a promotion charge. On top of that, they are doing so with a free-flowing style that is winning admirers.

Those punters with a punchline-based view of McShane will struggle to get their head around the fact that he is a key cog in the wheel of a team that is playing its own brand of total football - a version tailored to the needs of English football's gruelling second tier.


On Monday, he was part of a Reading side that came from two behind to win 3-2 in a thriller at Bristol City. Irish U-21 international sub Liam Kelly was a big part of a comeback, nabbing his first senior goal and making another and his name is going to be a regular feature of Irish news pages over the next few months if he continues his current rate of progression.

The diminutive playmaker would not have been trusted by other managers who prefer a more agricultural approach.

McShane has worked with a wide array of bosses and, for some of the old-schoolers, he ticked the relevant boxes because of his physicality.

But the Irishman has adapted to Stam's philosophy and, in the Bristol City encounter, it was the central defender who completed a greater number of passes than any other player on the pitch. In fact, his tally of 110 was higher than any other player in the Championship in the Bank Holiday Monday round of fixtures.

That's a stat which could have been turned into a fairly tricky piece of trivia, and it shows that he has now entered an intriguing phase of a career that has veered in a variety of different directions since he knocked on Alex Ferguson's door in the summer of 2006 and told him that he wanted to leave United and go in search of first-team football.

Loan spells at Walsall and Brighton had given him a thirst for work and his wish was granted.

The longevity of his senior career would suggest he made the right call and he can be added to the lengthy list of United graduates that made a success of themselves elsewhere. And make no mistake about it; success is the right word when compared with the vast majority of highly-regarded teenagers that fall by the wayside.

A strong character was required to get him through the toughest times. He was always a confident type and tells a great story about his first week at United.

McShane was walking down the corridor and spotted Ferguson coming in the other direction. "Morning Alex," said the youngster, unaware that he'd made a terrible mistake. Gaffer or boss was the correct term for the Scot - not familiar first-name terms - and he was quickly told as much.

McShane has made an impression by tackling convention, though. The most famous anecdote is the story of his Ireland debut in 2006 against the Czech Republic in the last days of the old Lansdowne and the fraught atmosphere of Steve Staunton's turbulent campaign which was on the ropes after a humiliation in Cyprus just four days earlier.

In the dressing room, it was the rookie that made an impassioned speech calling on his team-mates to deliver. Some of the details might be apocryphal, but nobody disputes the basic details of the story. His training ground approach had already indicated he was not shy about introducing himself, with Stephen Hunt this week recalling McShane "taking lumps out of Robbie Keane" and making his presence felt.

The older players from that era always speak warmly about McShane, with a sharp sense of humour making him popular and a strong work ethic garnering respect. "He's 100pc professional in about how he goes about things," says Hunt. "Strong-minded and demanding of others."

Nevertheless, the defender has admitted that bumps on the road did knock him out of his stride. He wouldn't be human if they didn't.

The Irish rise was followed by a swift fall where he became the inspiration for a raft of unfunny Facebook pages and other jibes. A switch to Sunderland to work with long-time inspiration Roy Keane failed to work out and their relationship became strained after a loss of form.

He spent six years on the books of Hull as a full-time employee and started 88 games. In a season and a half at Reading, he has already started 56 which illustrates the contrast between his current status and the long periods in exile during a stop-start mid twenties that made him question his future.

For some managers, his face just did not fit. And his fondness for settling differences with a full-on confrontation did not always help the situation. Under Nigel Pearson and Nick Barmby, he was cast aside.

"Some people at the club wouldn't talk to me at one stage because I was deemed a bad egg because I wasn't playing," he said in a May 2013 interview. "I was really contemplating it, just getting in my car, getting on the boat and going back to Ireland because it was just wall after wall that I kept hitting."


Steve Bruce brought him back into the fold and detailed the extent of the player's disillusionment. "We had a remarkable conversation where Paul said he'd never trusted any manager he'd worked under," he said.

It wasn't always harmonious with Bruce either. He was banished to train with the kids during his final season at the club after using social media to voice his displeasure at a spell out of the side, but he overcame the rocky patch and ended up becoming a regular for the final weeks of the season. When Hull opted to release him, there was genuine outrage. 'Don't sell McShane' was the popular crowd chant.

Reading was an attractive next step. McShane turned up for the PR pic to announce his arrival wearing a T-shirt that simply bore the message 'I feel love' and that has started to look like a prescient choice.

The old fire still burns. He was in the dock at the end of last season when he engaged in a furious on-field row with team-mate Danny Williams that led to an internal reprimand. Brian McDermott, his then manager, was on the way out though; he lasted just six months after replacing Steve Clarke - the man who had actually signed McShane.

Stam saw no reason to hand anybody else the armband. "He loves to fight his battles and put himself in front of the ball," he says. "He's been outstanding all season. He's a real leader."

Steven Reid, his one-time Irish colleague, is part of the Reading coaching staff and has simply described McShane as the 'rock' of their whole operation. By all accounts, he is a lively presence around the training ground, never far from his pal Stephen Quinn.

They were apart last summer with Quinn at the Euros and McShane left behind. He has existed on the periphery of squads during the Martin O'Neill and Keane era. When he got a chance against Slovakia in a pre-Euros friendly, he put through his own goal and the usual guffaws accompanied the faux pas.

That was an unfortunate point to throw in what can now be considered a rare bad day at the office and the emergence of Shane Duffy might complicate his ambitions to add to his 33 caps.

When Ireland were in France, McShane was wishing his pals well on social media - and wondering if Brexit would allow him to see his family again.

By the start of the new season, he was tweeting about the unseasonably warm weather at the Madejski Stadium being bad news for a ginger. He's always been able to have a laugh at his own expense, but McShane has earned the right to have his football prowess taken seriously.

Irish Independent

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