Making new life at Mackems

“WELL, I can see that they’re gone downhill, they’re not creating any chances, they’re struggling.”

John O’Shea tries in vain to keep a straight face as he assesses how Manchester United are getting on without him.

When the laughter dies down, he observes that Sunday’s humiliation of Arsenal was just the latest vindication of Alex Ferguson’s decision to, as Bono might put it, dream it all up again.

“I think the Champions League final against Barcelona was obviously a 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,” O’Shea observes.

Ferguson’s rejuvenation of United meant a parting of the ways for the Waterford man with the club where he had spent his whole professional career, something which O’Shea says he saw coming even if, he huffs, some sections of the media didn’t.

“(Last year) it was announced on the telly that I was after signing a £20 million contract and all my friends and family were ringing me up to congratulate me. And it couldn’t have been further from the truth.”

Furthermore, O’Shea claims that the eventual separation didn’t come as a shock.

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “I always said that that was going to be the case, that the manager would come and tell me what games I’d be able to get and different things. And that was the case. I had a year left and Sunderland came in with a four-year deal so it was fairly straightforward.”

Still, he doesn’t deny that when the time came, it felt like leaving home.

“Exactly, totally. It is a home from home as such because I’ve been there my whole career. But if it was going to happen, it was going to happen. Life goes on.”

He says he has no regrets about his time at Old Trafford and dismisses the idea that he might have overstayed his welcome there. As for highlights, he offers “just everything — I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

While his old club appears to be thriving, things are not so hunky dory at his new home in the north-east.

Having recovered from injury, O’Shea only got to make his Black Cats debut at the weekend in a scoreless draw with Swansea, a result which left Sunderland with just two points from their opening three games.

But O’Shea reckons a little perspective is in order.

“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,” he points out. “Once the team gets playing a lot more games together, we’ll be fine. Brucie, the gaffer, has brought in myself and Wes (Brown) in particular because of the experience we’ve had at United and to make sure we can pass it on to the younger lads. 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.

“As a United player, Sunderland was always a very difficult game and an intimidating ground to play at. We have been saying as a group this season that we have to make the Stadium of Light a fortress again for us. But we have a tough game when we go back, Chelsea at home, so it’s not easy at the minute.”

Before that, there is the small matter of two international games which could define not just a single campaign but a whole era for Irish football.

O’Shea admits that, up until he played at the weekend, he felt he was in a race against time to be fit for the games against Slovakia and Russia.

“It was important I got the 90 minutes against Swansea,” he says. “I had never done my hamstring before and I thought it would just be 10 days to two weeks but it turned out to be five weeks because it was a proper tear. On Saturday, I was up against Swansea’s two wide lads, Sinclair and Dyer — who are no slouches either — so they gave me a good test and it was good to get through it.”

The concept that there is no gain without pain is one he also applies to Ireland’s qualification campaign, especially the 3-2 defeat at home to Russia last year.

“It was perhaps time the team grew up a bit,” he observes. “They literally dominated the game away from home and that was the disappointing factor that night. Tactically we let them dominate and as players ourselves we could have kept hold of the ball better. We have to make sure we do that this time.

“We know how tough Slovakia will be but if we get a positive result on Friday we can go into the Russia game knowing we are almost guaranteed a play-off spot and then you can have the freedom to go and play out there. Fingers crossed, but I don’t want to look past the Slovakia game, to be honest.”

It’s been a year of change for John O’Shea on and off the pitch, his move from United to Sunderland coming shortly after the birth of his son, Alfie.

But when it comes to playing for his country, O’Shea has no plans to rock the boat.

“Hopefully I will still be here for four more years, if the manager keeps picking me,” says the 30-year-old. “I will always make myself available.”

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