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Ireland Will Miss The Curious Brilliance Of ‘Big Match John O’Shea’

The humble football podcast intro has followed the same simple format, almost universally, since the very beginning of the genre.

A catchy tune to get things going and a hasty snap into the host’s voice at the end, sandwiching several snippets of the game’s most famous sounds.

The post-match rants of Kevin Keegan. The scandalous allegations of Eamon Dunphy. The unmistakable wit of Brian Clough. All immortalised through a series of MP3s cobbled together by their biggest admirers – but perhaps no one man’s voice has been cropped and layed over a sample of Simon and Garfunkel quite so much in this country as George Hamilton.

Whether it’s the questionable relations of the Baggio “brothers”, a Scandinavian detective, or the sweetest shout of an Irish attacker’s surname for a certain goal, there’s a catalogue of great Hamilton quotes for any budding editors to choose from – all moments in time in Irish sporting history. 

But to focus on just one – and a very common one at that – for a moment, one brought into sharp focus after an open letter was released on the FAI’s website on Wednesday: 

“It’s there! It’s John O’Shea!” 

Yes, for a brief moment in Gelsenkirchen in 2014, a 33-year-old centre-half from Ferrybank in Waterford, playing for unfashionable Premier League dross Sunderland, got the better of one of the best in the world in Mats Hummels and poked home not just a goal to save a point, but a goal to cement a legacy – the legacy of Big Match John. 

O’Shea has always been a curiosity, a player of undoubted class never fully appreciated, held back by being the poster boy for stubborn, potato-headed football that undermined a confident performer and a true professional, regardless of role, opposition, or pressure. 

So often O’Shea was called upon by Ireland managers and club managers alike to “do a job”, letting his confidence shine as he continuously adapted. 

O’Shea had debuted for Ireland in 2001 against Croatia, and would go on to form a formidable partnership with Richard Dunne that remained the bedrock, along with Shay Given, of a green side in transition through the difficult mid-to-late 2000s period.

While EURO 2012 would prove to be Ireland’s biggest major tournament disappointment, it was fitting in hindsight that Dunne and O’Shea played pivotal roles at the back in getting us there (even if O’Shea would largely turn out at right-back in Poland). 

O’Shea would travel to France for EURO 2016 as well, captaining the side in the opening two group games and coming in from the bench in the last-16 tie with France after Shane Duffy’s sending-off, but by then he had long since won almost everything in the club game. 

While he was never quite considered a nailed-on starter at Manchester United, O’Shea grew to arguably be the fifth man in the defensive rotation, the first to be called upon and trusted by Sir Alex Ferguson regardless of what gap he had to plug. 

To have played under such an esteemed coach for so long spoke volumes about O’Shea’s quality, and his contribution in every position in United’s title triumph in 2002-03, where he played the third-most games of all defenders, cannot go unnoticed. 

O’Shea was part of a special group at United, recognised for being a man for the big occasion, held in the same esteem as the likes of Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park. He was one of the steadier hands that brought about so much success in big fixtures for Ferguson’s winning machine – even if they weren’t necessarily in the strongest eleven. 

Ferguson knew he could trust O’Shea, calling him a “fantastic” player and rating him as highly as Rio Ferdinand in 2002. Ferdinand himself referred to O’Shea as “the Mayor of Waterford” and a reliable partner throughout their time playing in England, and O’Shea’s leadership, excellent game-reading ability, and surprising skill saw him preferred for the big-pressure games. 

Sometimes, it didn’t quite work out.

Rome in 2009 against Barcelona immediately sticks out. But O’Shea normally delivered on expectation in the red shirt – and, oftentimes, presented the United faithful with a little something to remember him by. 

Take the 4-2 smashing of Arsenal in 2005, where the Munster man, entirely of his own provocation, spotted acres of free space in front of him and wandered far out-of-position to capitalise on Gabriel Heinze’s good work and Paul Scholes’ through ball and chip right over Manuel Almunia into the Highbury net. 

Or his capitalising on a break in the Liverpool box to send United on their way to derby victory and the title in 2007. His awkward marauding from right or left-back, surprisingly composed yet unmistakably ungainly. The famous moment in 2003 when he left Luis Figo for dead with the most succinct see-ya-later nutmeg you’ll ever see from an out-of-position Irishman. 

Confidence and honesty underpinned all his efforts, an unwavering self-determination to keep going regardless of how tough it got. Named Sunderland’s Player of the Year after their second consecutive relegation, at 37 years of age, proves O’Shea won’t ever stop working for the cause. 

His career did take a downturn after his move to the North-East, but his work there is no less valued. Arriving as a package deal with Wes Brown, O’Shea grew onto Wearside and nailed down a place in the starting XI as his colleague’s injury-prone body began to fail him. 

Brown represents a piece of wasted business but O’Shea certainly wasn’t, going on to become club captain and sticking with the club even through its toughest times.

Throughout it all, O’Shea has constantly carried himself with class and poise, no better summed up than in his open letter to the Ireland fans. His recognition of the roles both Ferguson and the recently-departed Liam Miller played in his career were touching, and his message of support to the under-17 side, currently competing in the Euros in England, was welcoming to see. 

“It has been an amazing journey but I feel now is the right time to step aside for the next generation to enjoy the experiences I am so humbled to have been part of,” the letter read.

“We have just passed the 20th anniversary of the Ireland Under 16s winning the UEFA European Championships in Scotland and it is fitting that the current U17 squad are now competing on the same stage. 

“I still look back at that particular triumph as the real starting point for my international career. I’m sure the young lads making up Colin O’Brien’s squad will be loving every minute of the tournament; just like I did under Brian Kerr and the late Noel O’Reilly.

“I always wanted to play as much as I could at senior level and to now have 117 caps has truly been an honour.”

O’Shea will win his 118th in his farewell game against the US in June, but to win 117 caps for any nation, let alone a massive 111 starts, puts him in a very exclusive club. 

Add five Premier League medals, a Champions League, and an FA Cup to that list, and there can be no doubting O’Shea’s big-match quality – perhaps the last player produced by the country to truly possess it. 

Big-match quality can be hard to pin down. Certainly O’Shea didn’t have the natural creativity of a Wes Hoolahan, the key moment goalscoring of a Jon Walters, the midfield pragmatism (he was quite marauding at times) of a Glenn Whelan, other internationals for whom the bell is tolling. 

Indeed, when the nickname ‘Big Match John’ was coined, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to WWE superstar John Cena, coupled with the ironic view that O’Shea’s declining abilities were having less of an impact on the Ireland scene.  

But just one look at his career, his achievements, and the constant faith placed in him by all he’s come across, illustrate that O’Shea was more than meets the eye. 

We’ll remember the moments, him donning the goalkeeper’s jersey and leaving Luis Figo for dead, the goals in Anfield, Highbury, and most importantly, Gelsenkirchen. 

Any man immortalised by Hamilton has earned his fair due, and in O’Shea’s case, it’s more than deserved. 

Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.