John O’Shea ended his professional career to appreciative cheers and a guard of honour as he made his final appearance as a late substitute in Reading’s 0-0 draw with Birmingham City at the Madejski Stadium.
The Irishman came on in the last minute yesterday, the final act in a glittering career during which he won nearly everything possible since his Manchester United debut in 1999, capturing 14 trophies during his 12-year spell at Old Trafford.
A move to Sunderland followed in 2011, where O’Shea couldn’t stop the club’s later decline into League One after two consecutive relegations.
O’Shea — who featured in two European Championships across his 118 Ireland appearances — spent the final year of his career at Reading, who ensured he received the perfect send-off.
“I wasn’t expecting that guard of honour,” said O’Shea. “I was a little surprised by it, but very appreciative of it now. It was very special and I’m very proud. It was a nice touch to have my family on the sidelines, too.
“It would have been great if I was available for more of the games. Injuries took their toll a little bit, so it was nice to get a few moments at the end. It was very special.”
While not the most glamorous of names, O’Shea was integral to the Red Devils’ period of sustained success throughout the noughties, winning three straight Premier League titles and a Champions League between 2007 and 2009.
Versatile and always willing, O’Shea’s had the privilege of playing in every position for United. A fullback, emergency striker or goalkeeper — deputising for Edwin van der Sar during a 4-0 away win at Tottenham in 2006-07 — this is a player who epitomises enthusiasm and consistency irrespective of the situation.
But what resonates most? Is it the time he chipped Manuel Almunia from the edge of the 18-yard box in a 4-2 win at Highbury in 2005? Perhaps it’s his crucial stoppage-time winner at Anfield in 2007? For some, it’s when he outrageously nutmegged Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo in 2003.
O’Shea, though, can’t pick: “It’s too hard [to choose]. When you’re winning a Premier League, they’re the special moments. When I got to work with the manager that I did and the players that I played with, competing at the top level for so long. All of those things.
To get the chance to play for Ireland 118 times as well, that’s immensely proud for me. I’ve been very fortunate to fit in the things that I have in my career and hopefully the next chapter will be as entertaining and as successful.
Beyond the glitz of Manchester, O’Shea played a prominent role in Sunderland’s perpetual fight to stay in the Premier League before moving to Reading last summer, helping the Royals stave off relegation from the Championship, confirmed last weekend despite a 2-1 defeat at Middlesbrough.
Granted, O’Shea’s been injured for large spells of the season, but his experience and general level-headedness have been vital, according to team-mate Liam Moore.
“I’ve tried to keep a close eye on him and copy a few traits. He’s very calm and he’s captained his country. I’ve tried to take a bit of his leadership. He speaks at the right time and when he speaks you listen. He’s a calming head and somebody everyone at the club can look up to.”
As one of Ireland’s most decorated stars, O’Shea was FAI Senior International Player of the Year in 2014 and set the example at Euro 2016.
An Ireland career spanning 17 years started against Croatia in 2001, but O’Shea announced himself internationally as a key part of an Irish defence that only conceded once as they won the U16 European Championship in 1998. O’Shea says it was a seminal moment in his career.
He explained: “We were competing against the best in Europe and to have that success early doors gave me a lot of confidence, and obviously the chance to go to Manchester United. It was a huge, huge moment for me.”
Life has a way of coming full circle and the U17 Euros — the successor to the tournament O’Shea won 21 years ago — began in Ireland on Friday, for which he’s an ambassador. The current crop of youngsters would be hard pressed to find a better advisor.
“It’s so true what they say. Enjoy the highs, because obviously there are plenty of lows along the way too,” he advised. “Make sure you really enjoy it all, that’s the big thing. Those little sacrifices you make along the way become worthwhile.”
As O’Shea takes his first steps into retirement, he leaves an impressive legacy behind as one of the sport’s most consummate — and well-decorated — professionals.
As an example to follow, there’s few better. A player you never hear a bad word against, his colleagues are full of praise, citing his humble attitude and genuine kindness. He bows out of the game as gracefully as he entered.