FEATURE | Farewell to the Ferrybank Boy
The year 1998 may not instantly spring to mind when we look for the great seasons of modern Irish football — 1990, 2002 or 2016 are some which appear to have more compelling cases.
Yet that summer 20 years ago, Ireland won not one but two major international competitions; the UEFA Under 16 European Championships in May followed by the U18 competition two months later. It was the remarkable peak of underage football achievement in this country, the year in which many names, now part of the fabric of Irish football history, first became known to us.
John O’Shea was one of them. He was 16 and playing with Waterford Bohemians in his native city when he got the call from Brian Kerr to travel to that U16 tournament in Scotland. Just about to turn 17, the tall youngster from Ferrybank — a Waterford City district locked hard on the Kilkenny border — had already rejected a significant contract offer from QPR. Liverpool were also interested.
O’Shea was sensible though. He wouldn’t be going across the Irish Sea until he had done his Leaving Certificate, due to take place a month after the tournament ended. The general expectation was that he would join Celtic once the on-field and off-field examinations were over.
On route to the final against Italy, Ireland played Scotland, Finland, Spain, Denmark and Portugal, and didn’t concede a single goal in any of those games. O’Shea formed an outstanding centre-half partnership with Jim Goodwin throughout the tournament and shortly after the 2-1 win over Italy in the final, Manchester United were in touch. Martin Ferguson, brother of Alex, had contacts in Waterford.
In some respects, getting a contract offer from a club like Manchester United after years of boyhood dreaming and battling is the end of a journey. Yet the reality is it's just the beginning. O'Shea moved into his Manchester digs and joined the end of a long queue of teenagers, the vast majority of whom would end up bitterly disappointed.
Jim and Mary O'Shea had brought up John well in Ferrybank and his steady origins served him well as he took on the incalcubly difficult task of making it at Old Trafford. Supposedly, O’Shea had never been a superstar growing up but had always shown an ability to slot in comfortably at whatever level and in whatever position he was asked to play in.
His professionalism, calmness and reliability were appreciated at Old Trafford and in the 2001/2002 season, he broke into the first team. He was 20 when he was given his first senior Ireland cap by Mick McCarthy, in an August 2001 friendly against Croatia. He didn't make the 2002 World Cup squad, but by the time the 2002/2003 season was over, he had established himself as an indispensable player for both Manchester United and Ireland.
His versatility is legendary – he has played in every position at some stage, including in goals – and it would be difficult to choose between full-back, centre-back and centre-midfield to find the position where he has done his best work.
He left Manchester for Sunderland in the summer of 2011, after nearly 400 first team appearances, five Premier League titles, one Champions League title and one nutmeg on Luis Figo, so famously executed against Real Madrid in the 2003 Champions League quarter-finals.
For his country, O'Shea has been every bit as reliable, versatile and consistent as he was during his time at Old Trafford. This evening, he makes his 118th and final appearance for Ireland having announced his international retirement a few weeks ago.
In an international career as long and esteemed as his has been, it should be difficult to pick one single moment which shines above all others. And yet we can.
The 94th minute of Ireland’s EURO 2016 qualifier against the world champions Germany in Gelsenkirchen. Ireland were trailing 1-0 when O’Shea somehow managed to swing his right boot at Jeff Hendrick’s flicked-back cross and plant the ball past the great Manuel Neuer in the German goal. That it was the final seconds of O’Shea’s 100th cap added further to the brilliance of a moment which the man himself recalls as his finest in Green.
From that U16 campaign in Scotland to that moment in North Rhine-Westphalia, and the century plus of appearances in between and since, O’Shea has served Ireland with a grace and distinction that few in the history of football in this country can match. He deserves a monumental send-off tonight.
Pick up your copy of the Official Match Day Programme at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.