Ireland says goodbye to a legend this weekend with John O’Shea set to hang up his international boots.
After an international career that lasted for 17 years, amassed 118 caps (after Saturday), two major international tournaments and enough experiences to last a lifetime, O’Shea will line out for the Boys in Green one final time in this weekend’s international friendly against USA.
Having been part of the Irish international landscape for so long, O’Shea has been present for some of the biggest highs and most crushing lows that Irish fans and players have faced in that time – from the misery of Paris in 2009, the shambolic Euro 2012 campaign and the ashes of so many qualification campaigns, to the euphoria of taking four points from the world champions, of Lille, of Cardiff. O’Shea is the thread that runs right through the fabric of modern Irish football.
It had a rocky start, like some of the best stories do. Giving away a penalty on his debut against Croatia wasn’t the best way to start, and the pain of missing out on the World Cup squad in 2002 is something that would have had a detrimental effect on most players.
O’Shea, though, had a quiet determination that ran through his entire career. The Waterford native, the everyman, was made of stern stuff. He put that early disappointment behind him and he rose to the top, as he was always destined to do. Combine his attitude with his strong versatility, and in many ways, it presented the perfect modern footballer. It’s one of the reasons why Alex Ferguson had such strong regard for him in his 12 years at Old Trafford.
He has achieved all of this without once seeking the headlines for himself. As his many former managers will attest to – not just with Ireland but also Manchester United and Sunderland – O’Shea has always let his performances do the talking. He is a leader, of that there is no question, but his is a unique style of commanding respect.
In a sport where leadership is often defined by who can shout the loudest, O’Shea was the serene warrior.
Through the doldrums of the post-Mick McCarthy era to the re-emergence under Giovanni Trapattoni, players like O’Shea were vital. Consistency in international football is a rare commodity, and yet the defender had it in spades. However many plaudits he has received for that throughout his career with Ireland, one still gets the sense that its not enough.
Above all, we in Ireland love a good story. We’re slaves to the narrative. Therefore, that O’Shea would be the hero on his 100th international cap seemed particularly fitting. Facing down the barrel of a 1-0 defeat to world champions Germany in the dying minutes of a Euro 2016 qualifier, few would have given Ireland a hope of getting anything from the match.
In desperate hope of salvaging a point. O’Shea bombed forward. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he met Jeff Hendrick’s ball across the box, just about got a toe ahead of Matts Hummels and diverted the ball past Manuel Neuer. Ireland would enjoy an even more unlikely result against Germany in Dublin the following year, but this was O’Shea’s moment. He didn’t score that many international goals (just three, in fact) but it is one of his that will live long in the memory of every Irish fan.
— Na Glinntí Glasa (@NaGlinntiGlasa) May 9, 2018
John O’Shea: To represent my country at a major tournament was a huge honour but to score against the world champions on my 100th cap was particularly special. #COYBIG #ThanksJosh pic.twitter.com/EH5oY1vPQA
— FAIreland ⚽️?? (@FAIreland) June 1, 2018
O’Shea’s role in the Irish starting eleven has been reduced since Euro 2016, but that in no way diminishes the importance of his role within the squad. In a side that is becoming younger as it transitions and ushers in a new era, players like O’Shea are vital in passing on the baton. Ireland’s central defensive hopes now rest on the likes of Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Kevin Long and Declan Rice, all Premier League appearance but with much less of a “been there, done that” level of experience as O’Shea.
The “smiley-headed gentleman” as Brian Kerr called him, steps down from the Irish side as a hero. He will get a legend’s send-off on Saturday and is fully deserving of every second of it. He wouldn’t want it that way, of course, being the team player that he is, but he won’t have a say in the matter.
In the new generation of Irish centre-halves, the side will be in safe hands – and much is that is down to the legacy he leaves behind. That said, the depth of his importance and influence will not be fully felt until he is no longer there.
Thanks for the memories, John. We’ll always have Gelsenkirchen.