Monday 11 December 2017

O'Shea won't look back in anger

Irish ace has high hopes of further success after United glory years

"HOW could I have regrets?" asks John O'Shea.

When he sits back in future years to tell the story of his time with Manchester United, it will always be summarised with a smile. There is no room for lingering disappointment about how it finished.

Packing up to start a new career with Sunderland this summer genuinely felt like leaving home. The sentiment is understandable.

After all, he emigrated from Waterford at the age of 17 and spent 13 years at Old Trafford. He was another contract away from spending half his life there.

Last November, friends and family thought he was on that path, when, on foot of reports emerging from England, Bill O'Herlihy broadcast that O'Shea had landed a deal worth £20m.

The callers and texters were informed that the congratulations were premature. No agreement had been reached.

Instead, a season interrupted by injury ended with a chastening Champions League defeat to Barcelona, which convinced Alex Ferguson that a freshening up of the ranks was required.

O'Shea, who failed to make the bench in part because of his ongoing ailments, was called aside and told that a bid from Sunderland would be accepted. And that was that.

The highlights?

"One or two," he remarks. Five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, three League Cups and a Champions League medal are hard to summarise in a sentence.

"Just everything, the whole lot," continues O'Shea. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."

What of Fergie's new crop? "Well, I can see that they're gone downhill, they're not creating chances, they're struggling," he jokes.

"But I think the final against Barcelona was key to the manager thinking: 'Right, I have to get energy and vibrancy back into the squad' and that's clearly what he's done."

The popular defender lives a different existence now. Taking on a senior role at Sunderland came in tandem with an entirely new responsibility in his personal life. Alfie, his first child, was born in June, just as transfer negotiations were cranking up.

"I wanted to put football to the side for one minute and make sure everything went alright," he recalls. "Thankfully, it did, and I was able to sort out a four-year deal very quickly."

Now, he's learning on the job about his new environment. The passion of fans in the North East is often parodied, but O'Shea has experienced it first hand. He is actually living in Newcastle and tasted the Tyne-Wear rivalry as a spectator last week.

Defeat to the nearest rivals placed his new boss, Steve Bruce, under temporary pressure. O'Shea was frustrated to be sidelined with a hamstring problem yet, in his new environment, there is certainty that he will play when available.

A weekend outing against Swansea was laced with frustration; the Black Cats took a point when it really should have been three. The challenge for O'Shea is to maintain the standards that were expected in his former place of work.

"It's different," he admits, "People seem to think Sunderland have signed a lot of new players, but they lost a lot of players at the end of last season too.

"Obviously, Steve brought myself and Wes Brown in because of the experience we had and to make sure we can pass it on to the younger lads. Especially away from home, and making sure the team can cope with different things.

"The club, the owner, and everyone involved want to make it a bigger and better club. They're going about it the right way, slowly but surely building a better squad."

With a change of scene comes a plethora of new faces, although he encountered a familiar one in the canteen a few weeks back when he bumped into Steve Staunton, who has joined the backroom staff in a scouting role.

The major absence from O'Shea's CV is an appearance at a major international tournament. He has emerged from a tough period under Staunton to become a consistent performer under Giovanni Trapattoni. In June, with Richard Dunne suspended, he led the defensive line in Macedonia as the visitors secured a crucial 2-0 win.

Yet the efforts will count for nothing if Ireland fall short in the big tests that lie ahead over the next seven days.

O'Shea was a callow youth on the last jaunt to Moscow in 2002, and is reluctant to look forward to Tuesday's return before addressing the issue of Slovakia. It is a must-win game. Nobody is dodging that fact.

"We know if we get a positive result then we can go into the Russia game knowing that we are almost guaranteed a play-off spot," he said. "And then you would have freedom going out there."

Last October's loss to Russia was a humbling experience.

"It was perhaps time the team grew up a bit," he reflects. "They dominated the game.

"That was the disappointing factor that night. Tactically, we let them dominate and, as players, we could have done one or two little things to keep hold of the ball better. We'll have to make sure we do that this time.

Whatever happens, O'Shea will be sticking around for the road to Brazil.

Question marks have been raised about the long term futures of the other 30-somethings in the squad, but there is no grey area about him.

"Hopefully, I will still be here for four more years," he stresses. "If the manager keeps picking me, I will always make myself available -- I think I've always said that."

Perhaps his old boss might have advised an alternative approach, but that's no longer his concern.

As one chapter ends, another begins.

Irish Independent

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