John O’Shea: Utility Man

man utd defeder john o'shea

Player Profile: John O’Shea

Date of Birth: 30/4/1981

Height: 1.91 m (6 ft 3 in)

Position(s): Defender, Defensive Midfielder

National Team: Republic of Ireland

International Caps: 118

International Goals: 3

Club Career

John O’Shea’s youth career began in his homeland with local clubs Ferrybank AFC and Waterford Bohemians. He was spotted playing for the latter by a Manchester United scout who convinced him to make the move to United’s academy.

The move paid off and he signed his first professional contract at 17. His first-team debut for the club came just after his 18th birthday in a League Cup defeat away to Aston Villa in 1999.

Despite his early appearance for the club, it wouldn’t be until the 2002-03 season that O’Shea became a regular fixture for United. The Irishman spent parts of 2000 and 2001 on loan at Bournemouth and then Royal Antwerp before returning to Manchester. But he began to feature more regularly in the 01-02 season, with his versatility earning him playing time. 

During his breakout season in 2002-2003, O’Shea featured at right-back, left-back, centre back, and defensive midfielder. United would go on to win the league that year, earning O’Shea his first trophy as a professional. 

With Rio Ferdinand suspended for a missed drug test, O’Shea took over a starting role in the 2003-2004 season. He helped anchor the United defence that would lift the 2004 FA Cup over Millwall.

The 2004-05 season was a difficult one for O’Shea. His form dipped and he had his head turned by interest from Newcastle United and Liverpool. He added one moment of pure class to his resume that year though. 

With United already up 3-2 against rivals Arsenal, O’Shea found himself at the edge of the 18-yard box all alone. With Arsenal’s goalkeeper Manuel Almunia rushing out O’Shea displayed the touch of a seasoned striker and chipped the ball delicately over Almunia and into the Arsenal net. 

Almost as memorable as the chip was O’Shea’s celebration, during which he appears to be in genuine disbelief at what he has just done. He wasn’t the only one.

O’Shea took advantage of another missing teammate in 2005-06 when he filled in for the injured Gary Neville. His performances didn’t improve with his playing time, however. Reportedly, O’Shea was one of the players Roy Keane blasted in his infamous and never-aired MUTV interview. 

During the 2007 season, O’Shea was forced into action as United’s emergency goalkeeper during a league match against Tottenham Hotspur. United had already used all 3 subs when goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was forced off the pitch with a broken nose. 

The ever-versatile O’Shea was chosen as van der Sar’s deputy. The game was 4-0 to United at that point so the pressure was off, but O’Shea still did his best. He even made a crucial save against Ireland teammate Robbie Keane to preserve the lead. Following the match, O’Shea joked that he deserved van der Sar’s clean sheet bonus for his performance. 

O’Shea played an important role in United’s regaining the Premier League title in 2007-08. He came on in a match against Liverpool as a late substitute for Wayne Rooney and further endeared himself to United fans by scoring a stoppage-time winner against their bitter rivals. 

The Irishman would deputize as an emergency striker on more than one occasion for United that year as the injury bug struck the club. Playing striker that season gave him the unique distinction of having played all 11 positions for the club.

One of the highlights of his career came in 2008 when he was part of the Red Devils Champions League final victory over Chelsea. While he remained on the bench for that match, he made six appearances in the earlier stages of European football’s main event that season.

O’Shea would be in and out of the starting lineup for the next few seasons, including the 2008-09 season in which United returned to the Champions League final but lost to Barcelona. 

In 2011, it was time for O’Shea to move on. He had played nearly 400 appearances for Manchester United in all competitions, but he was no longer getting enough game time at the club.

Sunderland, then managed by former Manchester United captain Steve Bruce, was the destination. O’Shea would spend 7 seasons on Wearside, 6 of those in the Premier League. He appeared over 250 times for the Black Cats.  

Unfortunately for O’Shea, the team success he was a part of at United was not replicated at Sunderland. Outside of a 2014 League Cup run that saw Sunderland fall to Manchester City in the Final, most of O’Shea’s time with the Black Cats was spent trying to avoid relegation. The club made dramatic survival escapes for years on end before they finally dropped in May 2017. 

He played one final season with Sunderland in the Championship before moving on. The club were expected to challenge for a promotion spot in the Championship, but instead finished at the bottom of the league and were relegated to League 1. 

O’Shea would remain in the Championship though as he made one final move, this time to Reading. He would play 11 times for Reading before announcing his retirement on his 38th birthday. 

In all, he played in 684 total matches as a professional footballer. He is remembered best for his incredible versatility and his longevity. It’s a remarkable feat to have played over 250 times for two different clubs. 

International Career

John O’Shea’s Ireland career didn’t get off to the best of starts. He was sent on by manager Mick McCarthy in the 84th minute of a friendly against Croatia in 2001. Ireland was up 2-1 late on. That’s a pretty safe time to get a kid his first taste of senior international football. However, O’Shea gave away a penalty for a handball in stoppage time. Croatia’s Davor Suker slotted it home and Ireland drew the match 2-2. 

Eventually, O’Shea overcame the reputation of his debut and earned a regular spot in the national team. This was due in part to his versatility as a player. O’Shea appeared for Ireland all across the backline and in defensive midfield but eventually he settled into his role at centre back next to Richard Dunne.

He played an important role in the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, which ended with Thierry Henry’s controversial handball to send France past Ireland. He started 8 of Ireland’s 10 matches. 

O’Shea appeared for Ireland throughout their successful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. The 2012 tournament marked Ireland’s second-ever appearance in the European Championships. The defender played every minute of Ireland’s tournament which ended in the group stage after three straight defeats. 

He earned his 100th cap in 1-1 draw with Germany in a Euro 2016 qualifier, scoring the equaliser on what turned out to be the last kick of the match. It was a fitting finish to a historic occasion. 

The captain’s armband went to O’Shea for the first 2 group matches of Euro 2016. The Irish finished the group stages in third place but advanced to the knockout rounds as one of the highest performing 3rd place finishers with 4 points. However, the Boys in Green were eliminated by the eventual runner’s up and hosts, France, 2-1. 

O’Shea’s last cap for his country would come on in mid-2018 in a 2-1 win over the United States in Ireland. He was substituted in the 34th minute and received a standing ovation in recognition of his contributions to the national team. 

He ranks third all-time in Irish history with 118 caps, behind only Shay Given and Robbie Keane.

Where is John O’Shea Now?

After retiring in 2019, John O’Shea began his coaching career as a first-team coach with Reading in the Championship. 

Did you know?

– O’Shea is one of the most decorated Irish footballers of all-time, having won more trophies than every other Irishman other than Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Steve Heighway and Ronnie Whelan. 

– He lead the Premier League in shots to goals ratio in the 2006-2007 season

– 5 of O’Shea’s 10 Manchester United goals came in the 80th minute or later. Clutch.