John O’Shea looking forward to his final farewell
Veteran defender to lead the Republic out against the USA in his final appearance
John O’Shea will bow out after donning the Republic of Ireland jersey for the 118th time in his long international career. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
“I was telling the boys, big Duffy and Séamus,” says John O’Shea, grinning broadly, when asked the first game he ever played for the Irish senior team.
“Igor Tudor, the big lad who played for Juventus . . .I thought ‘I’ll get against him now’ and he’s just absolutely bullied me and my arm swung up in the air, touched the ball. I’m looking for a free out and the ref has given a penalty. Alan Kelly starts laughing; then whispers to me: ‘That’s a good start for you’. Obviously you’re thinking: ‘Things can only get better’.
A fair few others might actually have been more shaken than that by the setback but, sure enough, things got better for O’Shea, a lot better. Happily, for us all, he had the character to endure both the blunder and the banter and to come back stronger
“People might have said that I’ve been too relaxed, too calm about different things,” he says. “But ultimately to play in the game at the level I have for so long, you have to have that bit of steel, that bit of drive along the way too so it’s in there when needed as well.”
His club career leaves little room for doubt about that and it was playing for Manchester United under Alex Ferguson that the he enjoyed almost all of his real footballing success. But there were two major championships with Ireland and coming in to play for his country was always, he says, that little bit special.
After that debut in the August 2001 friendly in which the Waterfordman came on to concede the penalty from which the Croats got themselves an injury-time equaliser, it took a while to nail down his starting slot. But he became a fixture in the squad soon enough and quickly came to realise just how much fun it was to be a part of.
“One of my first trips was when we were playing Russia away and that was like, amazing,” he says, his expression suggesting some class of Moscow misadventure. The detail is left to our imaginations but O’Shea remembers resolving upon his return that: “I won’t be missing a trip again”.
He scarcely did, it seems, and he captained the side in 17 of the 117 games he has featured in since.
Life in and around the squad changed a little, he acknowledges, but mostly in the way that society has more generally with social media now central to so much of the interaction. He has, in any case, loved it every time, he says, even if, at 37, with a wife, two kids and almost all of his playing days behind him, he has been a little less wide-eyed about it all of late.
The two European Championship tournaments as well as the goal he got in Gelsenkirchen to earn Ireland a draw against Germany in what was his 100th appearance for his country are mentioned as highlights.
But he also recalls the disappointment of qualifying campaigns that ended in failure despite he and the other players feeling they had been good enough to have progressed.
Ultimately, he acknowledges, he knew his time was up when he Martin O’Neill shook things up for the game against Italy in France and the team won without him.
But he hung about a while longer in order to play a part in the development of the younger players and, after joking about the fact he had scored just three goals (“I used to tell him not to bother going up for corners” quipped O’Neill) the manager thanked him for it sincerely as the pair sat on the podium at yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
The plan is that O’Shea will captain the team for the start of this last game, against the USA, before making way at some point over the course of the first half.
Shane Long misses out on the action with a knee injury and while Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick are fit enough to feature both Ireland, and particularly the Americans, will field sides that include some fresh faces.
It would be nice to think that the young players from both countries might get a sense of the scale of O’Shea’s service from the manner of his send-off and aspire, a decade or more from now, to having earned something similar.
This might not be much of a game but, as the FAI has been keen to tell people in its promotional material, there should at least, be quite a sense of occasion.