O'Shea worthy of place among the best
Irish utility man has toiled long and hard for Old Trafford status
WHEN John O'Shea spurned offers from a dozen British clubs in the summer of 1998 to sign a contract with Manchester United, the young Waterford man knew that he was swimming against the tide of history in his bid to make the grade at Old Trafford.
After all, no player from the Republic had come through the ranks at United and made a serious impression on the first team since John Giles back in the 1950s.
But tonight in Rome, O'Shea can truly write his name into the history books and become only the second Irish player to twice win a medal in European club football's top competition, as only Steve Heighway, with Liverpool in 1977 and again in '78, has won the European Cup/Champions League on two occasions.
So many tried, so many failed, but the fact that O'Shea can join Heighway on that roll of honour is a testament to the Waterford man's staying power, his talent and also Alex Ferguson's decision to keep faith in the United man.
It's bound to be a night of history in Rome's Stadio Olimpico on so many fronts -- not since UEFA revamped the competition in 1991 has a club side retained the Champions League, and only a handful of managers have won it more than twice, giving Alex Ferguson even more to aim for -- a chance to formally win a place among the list of truly great managers whose achievements match their reputations.
O'Shea is also aiming to win something for very personal reasons. Twelve months ago, he was on the podium and had a medal around his neck after United's dramatic final win over Chelsea in Moscow, as O'Shea won a medal even though he didn't play.
Nights like that sometimes sum up a lot of what's wrong with football, like the sight of Peter Kenyon going up to collect a loser's medal and bowing before Michel Platini to have the precious piece of metal hung around his neck, a shameless act of self-publicity and self-congratulation which brought shame both on Kenyon and UEFA.
Who was the 'official ambassador' for those great Real Madrid teams of the '50s or the Milan side of the '90s, and did he get a medal?
So it's also odd, in a way, that O'Shea has a Champions League medal from that Moscow battle with Chelsea even though he didn't kick a ball; O'Shea remained an unused sub on the night. It's one of the vagaries of football, best summed up by the fact that Jonathan Greening has a Champions League winner's medal but Keane doesn't (Keane was suspended for United's final win over Bayern Munich in Barcelona, while Greening was on the bench).
Likewise Liverpool: Jim Beglin never got a winner's medal in the competition (he was on the losing side on his only appearance in a European final, the Heysel disaster final of 1985), but legendary names like Josemi, Igor Biscan and Antonio Nunez all have a winner's medal as they were unused subs when the Reds beat AC Milan in 2005.
He has one in the bag already, but success for United in Rome tonight would see the Waterford man get what he deserves, as O'Shea has persevered at Old Trafford when at times it would have been easier to quit, walk away in frustration at the bit-part role forced on him and accept the glory of being a first-team regular at Wigan, Stoke or Hull.
The stats say a lot: presuming O'Shea starts in defence for United this evening, it will be his 52nd first-team appearance of the season for the club. Only a handful of United players have played more, and no other Irish player in England's top flight played more (Stephen Ireland, believe it or not, was closest, with 49 games for Manchester City).
Keane was last month asked about the case of a player like O'Shea, and to a lesser extent Darron Gibson: should a player stay on at a big club like United and be content with a bit-part role (again with an Irish context see the case of Caleb Folan, who played 19 games for Hull but started only two league games), or seek out first-team football at a less glamorous location?
"Sheasy is a great professional. What Sheasy has to do now is to make sure when everyone's fit at United, he's in the starting 11. People like John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher help you win titles as much as the Rooneys and Giggsys, who get the headlines," said Keane.
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