This season may or may not see the retirement of a player who has been a loyal servant to our club and has really bought into what it means to pull on the stripes. John O’Shea was never going to steal the headlines on a regular basis, his career has been built on quietly getting on with his job, but the fact that Man Utd fans still sing “When Johnny goes marching down the wing…” speaks volumes for the connection he made with those fans who have seen a procession of superstars come through their doors. John O’Shea’s contract is reported to expire at Sunderland in July 2018 and with relegation to League One, there is an argument that we should be doing everything we possibly can to ensuring that he stays with us for that journey. His experience and presence will undoubtedly be a huge lift to a deflated dressing room.
There are many fans who don’t rate John O’Shea, I am aware of that, and this season he seems to have lost a little more mobility. In seasons past I myself have groaned in frustration as he once again fell to one knee and asked to be substituted. The fact of the matter is though that the reason for those frustrations was because he was capable of organising the defence. When O’Shea played the defence seemed less chaotic. When I picture John O’Shea on the pitch I see him barking at other defenders or ushering Cattermole or Larsson to calm down. His experience at the highest level gives him authority to let the rest of the team know that he has seen it all. If you consider who he has played alongside let alone who he has played against I’m sure we can agree that he has learned an awful lot from his playing days.
How many players can say that they have played at the highest level in every single position? In 2007-08 due to an injury crisis he was drafted in to the Man Utd squad as an emergency striker and he became the first player to have ever played every position for Man Utd. That includes an appearance in goal after Edwin van der Sar broke his nose. O’Shea kept a clean sheet, even keeping out a late Robbie Keane one on one. Memories of Niall Quinn at Bradford City flood back. O’Shea is probably most fondly remembered at Man Utd however for one goal. In a game dominated by Liverpool in 2007, John O’Shea came on as a substitute for Wayne Rooney and scored the winner in front of the Kop, from that moment it’s safe to say his place in Man Utd folklore was cemented.
John O’Shea has five Premier League medals, one FA Cup medal, two League Cup medals and a Champions League medal. That experience does not usually come cheaply. He can be incredibly proud of what he has achieved during his career, albeit his medals have been won in red unpunctuated by white stripes. I remember when he first came to Sunderland in 2011. I was underwhelmed in all honesty, I had never viewed him as anything more than a nearly man. However, in his first game his composure and calmness on the ball showed me the difference between what I had been used to and a man who had played at the highest level. Composure and leadership go down as the key traits I would identify in the Irish utility man which have been missing at Sunderland for so many years. Yes, there have been errors, three assists for Palace’s Yannick Bolasie stick out in the memory, but one man does not make a team.
When O’Shea plays we seem more organised, less panicky. His joints may have rusted a little, especially in this dire season, but his leadership is still there. His experience stands out. To this day I do not understand how he gets away with holding on to opposition players in defensive positions as much as he does. It can only be his experience, he knows what he can get away with. For me, one of the biggest errors Sunderland have made in recent years (Alvarez aside) has been the failure to recruit young defenders when we had the experience of Brown and O’Shea for them to learn from. We must not make that mistake again.
As we head into League One many changes may befall us. Young players will be relied upon to play on what will be the biggest stage in the league. Youngsters will have to be thrown into the lion’s den where supporters can either lift the roof or crush a young man’s spirit. Wouldn’t it make sense to have a calm head amongst all of that? Someone who has played with Cristiano Ronaldo and against Zidane. Wouldn’t it make sense to learn from a player who knuckled down and learned to use his left foot just to get into the Man Utd team?
A player with determination, who loves the game and has the authority and confidence and inspiration to guide those youngsters through their development. Wouldn’t it make sense to capitalise on that experience, learn from what he has learned? Whatever happens in July when that contract expires I wish John O’Shea all the best. He wasn’t a Defoe or a Ferdinand; he just got on with his job. If there is any will to connect the history of the club with the future, Sunderland should be doing all they can to keep John O’Shea, even in a backroom capacity. After all, the boys from the NYPD choir may have been singing Galway Bay, but the bells were ringing out for John O’Shea…