Not that Giovanni Trapattoni has seen any of them, or at least not in the flesh, but Andy Reid’s 32 first-team appearances for Sunderland this season is a ratio bettered by only four other Irish players in England’s top flight – among them John O’Shea, whose consistently impressive performances shouldn’t be lost sight of on account of Manchester United’s mini-meltdown.
It’s hard to believe it’s approaching a full decade since O’Shea made his first-team debut for the club who beat Celtic among others to secure the services of the former Ferrybank AFC and Waterford Bohs schoolboy.
He arrived at Old Trafford in August 1998, within weeks of winning the European Championships with Brian Kerr’s Irish Under 16s. That so few of that team have gone on to make it in the full-time professional ranks shows how hard it is to fulfil potential.
There’s long been a perception that O’Shea hasn’t made the most of his big opportunity. But approaching 330 competitive appearances for United, surely it’s time his critics gave credit where it’s overdue.
He’s already played nearly 40 times this term. His lowest number of games in any season since his emergence was in 2004-’05, and that was a not-too-bad total of 37.
His haul of winner’s medals includes 3 Premier League, 1 Champions League (despite not getting any pitch time in the final against Chelsea last May), an FA Cup, a League Cup and a World Club Championship.
More than the medals, mind, O’Shea, who will turn 28 at the end of this month, has matured into an accomplished footballer. The accusation against him has always been that he’s too laid-back. Possibly, but that’s his nature. You can’t coach instinct. He was always more David O’Leary than Kevin Moran, the man whose sports agency now looks after his affairs. (It was Moran who’d advised John’s dad Jim when the offers were pouring in from cross-channel for his teenage son: ‘Let him stay and do the Leaving. If he’s good enough now, he’ll still be good enough in 18 months.’)
His breakthrough season (2002-’03), which put him in the frame for the young player of the year award, proved as much a millstone as a milestone. The Figo nutmeg against Real Madrid, on the back of a captivatingly confident cameo against Juventus, had made him one to watch.
Supporters and observers were expecting him to kick on. ‘Sheasy’ filled in when his friend Rio Ferdinand was suspended for missing a drug test as United won the FA Cup, but the following year his levels dipped and it was speculated that his future lay elsewhere.
Two years ago he completed the feat of playing in every position, including on goal, for United, but some merely saw that as further evidence that O’Shea’s versatility was preventing him from being taken seriously.
The utility tag would be a curse were he anywhere else. At United it’s proved to be a blessing: enabling him to stick around long enough to establish himself as a valuable contributor to the cause, rather than someone just there to make up the numbers. His recent performances against Inter Milan in the San Siro and at Newcastle were typical of the solidity and creativity he’s shown this season.
Some commentators even went as far as to say he lacked ambition by not looking for a move. But if he was there just to pick up the cheque he’d be injured more often than not; instead his ability to recover quickly from knocks and strains that would keep others out for weeks, if not months, has also stood him in good stead; ditto his two-footedness.
After scoring some crucial goals (five in all, and as many in the League as £30m Chelsea signing Andriy Shevchenko – including a March winner away to his boyhood heroes Liverpool) as United regain the Premier League title in 2006-’07, that November he signed a contract extension tying him to the club until 2012. “It has never crossed my mind to leave,” O’Shea said.
Ferguson, who praised O’Shea’s “personality and professionalism” when signing that deal (reputed to be worth around £45,000-a-week, plus bonuses), has always liked his squaddies: those players who are happy to be part of the bigger picture. Brian McClair and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are two who spring to mind, and both are now on the coaching staff, the former as director of United’s youth academy.
“I feel blessed that we have players like John O’Shea, who has stepped in to play out of his skin,” Ferguson said recently. “John has thrived on playing regularly and I’m sure that if I asked him to play at centre-forward he would get us a goal.”
Seventies United legend Martin Buchan also appreciates O’Shea’s worth. “He is equally adept in either full-back position, just as he is competent as a centre-back when needed. Some might say John is a victim of his own versatility, but being able to play anywhere across the back four means he gets a starting place more often than not.”
Another Scot, Sky’s Andy Gray, who awarded O’Shea man-of-the-match for his marking job on Chelsea’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink way back in August ’02, is equally admiring of a man who has outlasted no shortage of big-money signings and newer ‘bright young things’ over the past 10 years.
“O’Shea has had a fine season, and he looks really confident and capable now every time he plays,” he says.
Alan Hansen adds that O’Shea, while “not the greatest player in the eyes of many”, is “more than competent.” More than competent is no mean recommendation.