Sitting alongside Martin O’Neill at the top table for what was his final eve-of-match Irish press conference yesterday, John O’Shea recalled with amusement the false start to his underage Irish career as a teenage hopeful from Waterford.
“I remember the first time that I was told that I was going to be in the Ireland panel after the Kennedy Cup,” he said. “We played up in Athlone in the semi-final and final against North Dublin and Galway. I was told that I was in the squad and then the squad was announced — and I wasn’t in it. I think my Dad (his late father Jim) learned a lesson that day not to tell me anything until it was official!
“But the following year I was in the (U16) squad and that was the start of a great journey. To have that success in the European Championships in 1998 was incredible and set me on the path for my career in Manchester.”
Having completed his stint in front of the cameras, O’Shea repaired to the adjacent media work room in Abbotstown for a less formal, more free-flowing and reflective conversation with a small group of print journalists.
“Yeah it does, it feels as if it’s yesterday,” he replied with a smile when asked if it seemed to him as if all of those 17 years and 117 caps as a senior international had gone by in a flash.
“Chatting to some of the boys this morning and they’re asking me ‘What was your first game? What was your first involvement? And how many games did you play?’ And they’re like ‘You didn’t miss too much, did you?’
And then, with a chuckle, he added: “But I’ll be able to batter them all maybe on the telly or the radio or something, tell them all what they’re doing wrong!”
Your international career didn’t get off to the greatest start — you conceded a penalty on your debut in a friendly against Croatia in August 2001?
“That’s what I was telling the boys, big (Shane) Duffy and Seamus (Coleman). Igor Tudor, the lad who played for Juventus, I thought, ‘I’ll get up against him now’ and he’s just absolutely bullied me and my arm swung up in the air and touched the ball. I’m looking for a free out and the ref has given a penalty. I thought, ‘things can only get better’. Alan Kelly starts laughing, Kells is in the goal and he whispers to me ‘That’s a good start for you’. Obviously you’re thinking things would go a bit better than that but it was a good learning curve for me to think ‘right, you’re almost ready but physically you need to develop and pick your battles too’.
Were there any times in the early stages of your international career when didn’t feel comfortable at that level?
“There were always tough lessons but you’re hoping the level you’re playing at, the club I was at and the people I was training with (would stand to you). Also because the environment I was coming into was so good. They’d just been to the World Cup, and there was confidence and quality among the group. Obviously there was a change of manager quite quickly afterwards (Brian Kerr replacing Mick McCarthy) so it was a little bit unbalanced for a while but the group that I came into made you feel so welcome. The level I was playing at was key for me settling in though.” Isn’t it much harder now for an Irish lad to make it at a club like Manchester United?
“Now there’s much more competition for young lads going over. I had to maybe worry about a lad from Sweden, an odd fella from Italy or an African boy but now you look at academies and the squads are incredible: there are Brazilians, South Americans, African, Spanish, Swedish. There might be one or two Irish or a Scottish lad but competition is so fierce. Hopefully the benefit will come from the League of Ireland and what they are doing, as kids might think, ‘I will hang on here a bit longer’ as you are not fully developed. I still think if the kid is good enough and shown the right things and they do the right steps, they will get a chance. But they need that bit of luck too, whether it be a couple of injuries. Lads forget how important a loan spell is too. You’re going out to play Championship or League One or whatever it is, or heading off to a different country, and it’s crucial as they test you there and the manager can say, ‘well, if you can’t cope with that, you have no chance of getting into the first team, you know?’”
Your own loan spell at Bournemouth helped toughen you up?
“Yeah without a doubt. The lads you’re playing against. The manager (Alex Ferguson) said to me, ‘look, the reserve games are not really much of a test for you, you need to get battered a bit and see how you cope with it then’.”
After the way Ireland failed to make Russia this year, did you consider playing on for one more campaign?
“No. I was close to retiring after the Euros as well. It’s one of them, you’ve been fortunate and automatically been in the team for 110/111 caps and next thing it’s ‘boom’, you’re not. That’s something you have to get used to. When I spoke to the manager, he said ‘you’ll still play a part’ and obviously I did for one or two of the games. I understood then what some of the other senior boys had done and it’s an important role you have to play, to help the lads get an understanding of what’s needed, be it behaviour or how to cope with certain things. It was something I was glad I did. But it was never a case of thinking that just because it didn’t end so well with the play-off to get to the World Cup (that I wouldn’t retire). It was always going to be the case.”
After you were dropped for the Euro 2016 game against Italy, did you feel that was a turning point?
“Without a doubt. You’ve been automatic for however many games before that. It’s definitely something you’re thinking about. At the time because of the group situation you had, you think, ‘look, get behind everyone and then we can argue or fight or whatever afterwards’. If you wanted to, saying, ‘why did you?’ But that was never the case for me. If you’re picked, you’re picked. That’s it. You get on with it.”
What was the most disappointing moment of your Irish career?
“The French play-off game obviously would be high up there. I got injured and afterwards missed a long spell of my career, three and a half months from the dead leg I got from Shay’s big fat knee (laughs). Apart from that, when you’re missing out on tournaments it’s frustrating because we knew, at times that we had squads good enough to get to these tournaments.”
Do you ever find yourself wishing they had VAR in the Stade de France in 2009?
“They wouldn’t have needed it, it was that obvious. But, look, other things mightn’t have fallen for you. Penalties might have been given against you. But obviously, yeah, we’ve gone toe to toe with France and we were doing well, we were doing well.”
And the best moment?
“Getting the chance to represent your country at major tournaments have definitely been some of the highlights but, obviously, on your 100th cap to score a goal against Germany, that’s going to be particularly high on the list. And because of what it meant in the campaign to keep the momentum going to qualify for a major tournament. But especially the moments when you’re in camp and you have that bond with the group of players which is always so special with Ireland — that’s something you’ll always treasure too.”
Was it fun being with the Irish squad?
“Huge! And I think that’s something that was a major part in continuing the run that I’ve had, without a doubt. One of my first trips was when we were playing Russia away and that was like, amazing. ‘I won’t be missing a trip again,’ I said (laughs). Gary Kelly, those sorts of lads, they made you feel so welcome. You had Robbie and Duffer, lads closer to my age then, but you also had the older lads. They were nuts but they were brilliant to be around.”
Is some of that craic gone now?
“It is but it’s just the type of kids that are growing up now. There are still plenty of nutters, well, I won’t say nutters, but great fun lads about the squad without a doubt. But obviously the way they go about things would be a bit different.”
And do you try to get with the kids?
“No, no, no (laughs), I’ve got my young lads flossing but none of the lads in the squad have been flossing this week. So that’s a good thing.”
Do you recognise yourself in the way you are often portrayed in the media — cool, calm, laid back?
“When I came in on Wednesday Seamus (Coleman) was on to me, saying, ‘I want to see you effing and blinding out there tomorrow.’ People might have said that I’ve been too relaxed, too calm, about different things but ultimately to play in the game at the level I have for so long, you have to have that bit of steel, that bit of drive, along the way too. So it’s in there when needed as well.”
Ever see yourself coming back to play for Waterford?
“No, I can’t see that and I can’t see myself coming back here to play. It’s not in my plans but you never know…if the Blues get back into Europe (laughs). It’s great to see the crowds back there, though, and the season they’ve been having. It’s been amazing and obviously best wishes to Renny (Alan Reynolds), hopefully he recovers quickly. You wouldn’t rule out coaching, whether it’s in the Irish set-up or a club set-up, that’s definitely an option. But no, I’ll be England for the time being anyway.”
“It’s obviously an option. It’s something that you would have to consider as well but whether you would think that that’s enough for you in the context of what you have been doing day in day out for so long... we’ll weigh these things up and hopefully come out with something that you’re happy and satisfied with. That you feel can fill the void.”
You say ‘fill the void’. Would you be in any way fearful about the future when you finally hang up the boots for good?
“Yeah, you would be. You’d be foolish not to think like that. It’s something that has been such a major part of your life. You have to be prepared for that and that’s why over the last four years I’ve been doing my bits of coaching. There are pitfalls, and I think that I need to be doing stuff. I’ll have a lot more time for the family too, make them the priority — obviously they are the priority — but not to be thinking that I might go here or there for a year. My wife would be like ‘will you, now?’”
Because they’ve made sacrifices for your career too?
“Exactly. Fingers crossed, baby number three is on the way in August, so that will keep us busy. (John and Yvonne have two children, Alfie who turns seven at the end of this month and four-year-old Ruby).
After your father, was Alex Ferguson the biggest influence on your career?
“Without a doubt. That’s something I will always be hopeful of taking into coaching and management, that man-management style that he had. Especially if you were going into talk to him, if you’re not in the team or something like that. And then you’re coming out thinking, ‘I haven’t even spoken to him about what I was supposed to talk to him about!’ That’s a good art. Try and master that.
“I haven’t had a chance to speak to him yet (since his hospitalisation) but obviously I’ve been in touch with people close to him and stuff like that. You saw the response from everyone, the football world, the football community.
“It was incredible. And it’s great to hear that he’s battling away and getting better day by day.”
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