FOR a man who has achieved so much, it is incredible how John O’Shea continues to slip under the radar. That only four Irishmen – Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Steve Heighway and Ronnie Whelan – have won more major medals than him has practically gone unnoticed. That only 27 players played more games for Manchester United is another fact people are ignorant of. And that O’Shea got asked, four months ago, how he felt about his move to Sunderland finally making him a regular starter, rather than a bit-part player, tells you everything you need to know about his perception in Ireland.
For the record, O’Shea didn’t even answer that question. Had he chosen to do so, he could have pointed out that in nine years as a United first-teamer, he averaged 45 games per season. That those nine years brought him five Premier League medals, the FA Cup, Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup and three League Cups. That he played 393 times for United, 200 more games than Eric Cantona managed, more than Nicky Butt, Phil Neville and Wayne Rooney, one less than Nobby Stiles and David Beckham.
Ironically enough “the Sunderland regular” has managed just 24 games this season – injury curtailing his involvement. Only one of his nine seasons as a United “bit-part-player” proved less productive. “What people thought of me in terms of appearances wasn’t something that worried me,” said O’Shea. “I knew what I was doing.”
What he was doing was changing the mould of the modern-day player. Until O’Shea came along, a utility player was a nice way of describing someone who couldn’t hack it. While plenty have accused O’Shea of this same fault is undeniable. Football, after all, is a game of opinions. Yet in the opinion of the most successful manager the British game has known, Alex Ferguson, O’Shea was the one he turned to when there was a shortage at right-back, left-back, centre-back and, for two seasons, centre-midfield.
“John’s intelligent,” Ferguson said in 2005. “You only need to tell him once what to do. His understanding of a role is what makes him such an important part of the place here. He adapts incredibly well.”
Yet the biggest adaptation O’Shea made in his career was not tactical but mental. As a kid he was laid-back, shy of making challenges, ignorant of the importance of being assertive. Then, all of a sudden, in 2001, he changed.
Publicly he put up a guard. And on the field, he toughened up. The good aspects of his game, composure and technical ability, remained. But the capacity to cope with the pressure of the big occasion made, not broke, him.
“You have to credit the manager [Ferguson] for how I developed,” he says. “The steeliness the manager gets into the squad and into the team is important. His team-talks are all about managing the occasion and believing that no matter what, you will win.
“Fergie-time is a new phrase that has come into football. To me, Fergie-time starts around January, February.
“He puts it into his team talks about what way he wants to approach games – saying, ‘don’t worry if it is 0-0, don’t worry if it is not going our way, just keep going because while we might lose the odd game, we will win more than we lose’. Players never got fazed by the pressure. Last minute goals are so part of the culture there, that time when other teams are knackered and lose concentration is the time when United come alive. We learnt to love that pressure. I certainly did.”
Then last May, a new pressure was born. Ferguson brought the Waterford man into his office, told him Sunderland had bid for him and the club had accepted their offer. His time in Manchester was up.
“I wasn’t hurt,” says O’Shea. “Okay, I’d like to still be there but c’est la vie. I am enjoying my football in Sunderland.”
While the added responsibility of being a leader – “Martin O’Neill spoke specifically to me about being vocal from my position and organising things” – was a positive, it took time, and a change of manager, for Sunderland’s season to begin.
Steve Bruce signed O’Shea. But Bruce couldn’t make things happen. When he was sacked at the end of October, with Sunderland in relegation trouble, Old Trafford and the constant chase of honours seemed a long way away.
“It was the first time in my career where I was waiting on a new manager coming in and it can be a worrying time until you find out who the new man is,” said O‘Shea. “When we found out it was Martin O‘Neill, there was a great relief. His reputation preceded him not just in terms of what he achieved but also because whenever big jobs became available, his name always seemed to pop up. And you can see why. His track record in getting consistency into teams is second to none.
“He has got the best out of us. His motivational skills are psychologically so clever, how he says the right things at the right times to players. The team talks are excellent. Around the training sessions, he brings simplicity. He gives confidence to the players. He, and the coaching staff, keep everything so simple that you really enjoy it.”
Having worked under O’Neill, Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni – O’Shea has seen how the best in the trade operate. Now 31, his next move could be to the dug-out.
“It is funny when the new gaffer took over, when he was getting to know all the players, getting conversations going and he said, ‘O’Shea if you ever think of becoming a manager, come and see me in my mental home and I will tell you not to do it’.
“But it is something you think of. You see the joys and rewards that come from managing a successful team, the satisfaction you must get from building a successful team, getting results can help replace the buzz, adrenaline rush you get as a player. I have thought about it but who knows?”
Before he thinks about it in any more detail, he has the European Championships to consider, a final box ticked in his career. Until now, he had the dubious honour of being the most capped Irishman who never played in a major finals. Now he is appearing at The Show.
“It’s so important for me to play there,” he said. “In 2002, I was just too young. Had I broke into the United team six months earlier then who knows? I could accept Mick McCarthy’s decision easily. Now, I’m just delighted to be there.”