Thursday 17 January 2019

Ireland's magic moment: How John O'Shea was on hand when Fergie got all the luck in title race

 

John O’Shea celebrates with Rio Ferdinand after scoring the winner against Liverpool in March 2007. Photo: Man Utd via Getty
John O’Shea celebrates with Rio Ferdinand after scoring the winner against Liverpool in March 2007. Photo: Man Utd via Getty

Colin Young

Just last week, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville described it as one of the most significant victories in his decade of service to Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. And it was the moment a young Irishman cemented his place in United folklore.

Asked for his favourite memory of the many Manchester United v Liverpool clashes in his career, the Sky pundit recalled a key moment in the 2007 title race when he said: "John O'Shea. Unbelievable moment, that goal in the last few minutes." United went on to win the title that season, their first in four years and 16th overall at that stage, still two behind Liverpool.

O'Shea, who stepped down from the Republic of Ireland squad with 118 caps earlier this year, made almost 400 appearances in his own 12 years with Manchester United. He won 14 trophies in all. Now 37 and after relegation to unhappily conclude his five years with Sunderland, he is at Reading where he is again embroiled in a battle for Championship survival. O'Shea has five Premier League medals in his collection, plus one FA Cup, three League Cup, one Champions League and the Fifa Club World Cup. Of Irish internationals, only Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Ronnie Whelan and Steve Heighway have more honours.

He earned them the hard way, playing in virtually every position as a firm Ferguson favourite. He first broke into the side as a regular left-back but played on the right of defence or in the centre and was equally adept in midfield, particularly in the holding role. He even had a stint in goal, and a month before his dramatic Anfield winner he kept a clean sheet for five minutes and denied Robbie Keane at the end of United's 4-0 win over Spurs at White Hart Lane after Edwin van der Sar had broken his nose.

It was not just O'Shea's versatility and reliability which pleased Ferguson. The graceful Waterford-born footballer, who had delayed his commitment to United to complete his studies, scored important goals, too, which endeared him to supporters. In the 2006/'07 campaign, he scored an important goal in a narrow win over Everton at a crucial point of their Premier League title run. A tidy chip away at Arsenal in 2005 is fondly remembered, along with a striker's finish from close range in the Champions League semi-final win over the same opposition four years later.

But it was his winning goal in United's pursuit of Chelsea's league crown that will forever be remembered, particularly as their supporters cling to memories of their domination over their rivals, which has been reversed in the era of Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho.

Liverpool have not won this fixture since March 2014 and United have won five of the last eight. But there is a 16-point, 26-goal gap between them going into their 229th meeting. For the record, United have won 88, Liverpool 75 and there have been 65 draws.

Rafa Benitez's Liverpool were unbeaten at Anfield going into the game 11 years ago, winning 11 of their 14 outings, and O'Shea started on the bench and watched a full-strength home side, in pursuit of the Champions League which would end with a final defeat to AC Milan in Athens, totally command the game. Determined to halt United's attempt to wrestle the title from Chelsea, Benitez brought back his big guns but they were to rue missed chances throughout a tense match. There were chances at both ends in the first half, with Paul Scholes dictating most of the visitors' play on the counter-attack.

Cristiano Ronaldo looked particularly threatening. He stabbed a Patrice Evra cross wide at the far post and burst through from Scholes' pass to fire over. But more chances fell to Liverpool. Ireland international Steve Finnan's cross should have been buried by Mark Gonzalez but Van der Sar saved his tame header and his 20-yard shot. Craig Bellamy went close, John Arne Riise's 20-yard free-kick even closer.

After Steven Gerrard and Craig Bellamy had wasted good chances in the opening minutes of the second half, the Welsh striker had a goal ruled out for offside. Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt both had shots blocked before Riise sent another long-range effort into the stands.

Jamie Carragher made two outstanding tackles to deny Ronaldo as he became even more prominent on the break, but the Liverpool defender was booked for the challenge which would end Wayne Rooney's latest visit to Anfield. Rooney hobbled off with a knee injury in the 73rd minute to be replaced by O'Shea.

Still the missed opportunities mounted and Van der Sar saved twice superbly from Liverpool substitute Peter Crouch on his goal-line. Four minutes from time Scholes was sent off for swinging at, and missing, Xabi Alonso with a right hook. The Spaniard, on a yellow card, was fortunate not to receive a second for holding Scholes' arm.

At that stage, Ferguson would have settled for a point but in the first minute of added time, Ronaldo struck a fizzing free-kick from the left edge of the 18-yard box at The Kop end which bounced in front of Pepe Reina. It hit the Spanish 'keeper's chest and slid into the path of O'Shea who pounced on the loose ball before Daniel Agger and Carragher could react and smashed it into the roof of the net, and smartly hot-footing it to the other end of the ground and the delirious United supporters. It is a magical moment they will never forget . . .

Ferguson bounced down the touchline as the shock hit him and the ball hit the net. He admitted afterwards that his side got lucky. "Liverpool will feel unlucky and they deserve to. We had a lot of narrow escapes and they upset our rhythm. It was a massive victory."

A frustrated Benitez said: "I would have trouble explaining how we lost that in Spanish. In English I find it almost impossible. We dominated the game, were in control and had plenty of attacks. Sometimes football is all about luck. You must be careful against a team as good as United."

March 3, 2007, Anfield

Liverpool: Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko (Crouch), Gonzalez (Aurelio); Kuyt, Bellamy (Pennant)

Manchester United: Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra (Silvestre); Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney (O'Shea), Larsson (Saha)

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