Opportunities abound for Irish on the Championship trail

There is a conversation from a couple years ago that sticks in the mind — and the craw — of Sean O’Shea.

Opportunities abound for Irish on the Championship trail

There is a conversation from a couple years ago that sticks in the mind — and the craw — of Sean O’Shea.

His son, Dara, had just been called up to the Republic of Ireland U19 squad and Dara, a West Bromwich Albion defender, was elated.

The family, too, so, on a visit soon after to the English midlands, O’Shea Snr got chatting to one of the youth coaches at West Brom about Dara’s achievement.

Whereas a fuss would be made of any youth team player recognised by England, there was little fanfare about O’Shea’s international recognition.

“I remember it clearly. I was told, ‘sure everyone who comes from Ireland gets to play for Ireland’. I just thought to myself, ‘well, that’s not quite true’,” O’Shea says.

That encapsulates the young centre back’s rise through the West Brom underage ranks to the first team, where an improved contract offer from manager, Slaven Bilic, is currently on the table, after O’Shea made his senior debut, against Brentford, just before Christmas.

“He has always gone under the radar,” his father says. “He has never been a star and he doesn’t want to be.”

Others have always taken that mantle, and it’s the same at the beginning of this year, when all the talk is of the exciting Irish talent making waves at the other end of the pitch. Teenagers Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, and Michael Obafemi have all played in the Premier League this season — the latter’s debut coming last term — but O’Shea’s rise to prominence, at a Championship club vying for promotion, is equally encouraging.

So, too, the emergence of 18-year-old midfielder Jason Knight at Derby County, who will get a chance to impress in front of Ireland coach, Robbie Keane, when they face Middlesbrough this weekend. Like O’Shea, the Cabinteely native has forced his way to the top of the queue through a mixture of talent and tenacity. “He doesn’t do losing; he absolutely hates it,” Eddie Gormley, his former youth coach with Cabo’, says. “You can’t teach that to young kids; he has a will to win and it’s infectious.”

Knight’s insatiable appetite for success first caught the eye of Frank Lampard, then in charge at Derby, and now the new manager, former Barcelona star, Phillip Cocu, has made him a regular starter. New arrival, Wayne Rooney, has been won over, too, likening Knight’s aggression and competitive spirt to when he was making his way in the game. Knight, a clever midfielder, has made rapid progress, whereas O’Shea’s has been more steady, even if the 20-year-did make a big impression on Bilic before a ball was even kicked in pre-season.

Simply by refusing the offer of an extra week off, following his exploits for Ireland’s U21s at the Toulon Tournament, O’Shea was noticed by the Croatian.

“Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is not a virtue, it’s a flaw, if you are focused, if you are fit, if you work hard. Not in football; in every way of life. It’s kind of cool to be lazy and all that, but Dara is, like a few of them, they are all good boys, but for young kids, they are old-fashioned in a good way and that is the key for a young player,” Bilic said at the start of this season.

O’Shea’s single-mindedness hasn’t changed from his early teens, when he stepped away from playing rugby, as an out-half or fullback, for his school, Templeogue College. He was also part of Dublin development squads in Gaelic football and hurling, breaking two ribs in a challenge game the day before he was due to go on an Ireland soccer trial.

“That didn’t go down too well,” O’Shea Snr laughs. O’Shea was making serious inroads, even if, like in the case of Knight, there weren’t a queue of clubs in Britain lining up to sign him as a kid. West Brom, due to their connection with his schoolboy club, St Kevin’s, were always aware of his talents and Manchester United then came on the scene when O’Shea was around 15 (academy director, Brian McClair, had taken an interest). Nicky Butt was his coach for the numerous trips he made over to Manchester, as well as tournaments elsewhere, but when it came to offering him a contract, the Old Trafford club opted, instead, for young Dutch prospect, Timothy Fosu-Mensah.

“Dara was a United fan growing up, but that didn’t dishearten him at all,” his father says.

O’Shea was able to settle at West Brom, mostly because the family he insisted on staying with were so understanding.

“It was Chris Wood’s parents,” Sean says. “He’s at Burnley now and was making his way in professional football. They were like his English Mammy and Daddy. They made sure he learned to cook and could take care of himself, so he could be ready for moving out.”

That time came when Tony Pulis recommended him to Hereford Town, dropping out of the Football League to gain valuable experience in a first-team environment. His spell at Exter City, last term, really caught the eye and the lessons learned have stayed with him. “Dara never got homesick. I remember him talking about how other boys would be counting the days to coming home, but he always had it in his head that he needed to get through that, in order to become a footballer.”

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