Made in Dublin

Dara O'Shea's rise from the seventh tier of English football to the Premier League

Loan spells at Hereford and Exeter City prepared the 21-year-old to make his mark at West Bromwich Albion.

west-bromwich-albion-v-queens-park-rangers-sky-bet-championship-the-hawthorns West Brom players, including Dara O'Shea (second from right), celebrate their promotion to the Premier League. PA PA

DARA O’SHEA SAID recently that he didn’t expect to play such a prominent role for West Bromwich Albion this season, but perhaps he should have seen it coming after eliciting a declaration of love from a man of Slaven Bilic’s stature.

Since leaving St Kevin’s Boys at 16, O’Shea has aspired to make it at the highest level as a centre-back – the same position in which Bilic carved out a successful playing career that peaked with Croatia’s third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup.

The West Brom manager therefore knows a decent defender when he sees one. In O’Shea, he has found a player who’s willing and able to do a job anywhere across the back.

O’Shea made his Championship debut at centre-back. He then established himself in the West Brom team at right-back. Last night, as the Baggies sealed their return to the Premier League, he slotted in at left-back.

“I think I’m dreaming,” the 21-year-old tweeted after the 2-2 draw with Queens Park Rangers. For a player who’s only two years removed from a season on loan at Hereford in the Southern League – the seventh tier of football in England – promotion to the top flight marks the latest stage of an incredible ascent.

When he took over at the Hawthorns last summer, Bilic was quick to recognise the potential in O’Shea. The new manager subsequently abandoned his initial plan to bolster his defensive options in the transfer market.

soccer-world-cup-1998-france-vs-croatia Croatia's Slaven Bilic challenging France's Thierry Henry during the 1998 World Cup semi-final. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

“There are always a couple of players who are above the others in terms of fitness – that’s Dara,” Bilic said back in August. “Dara is focused, he is ready, he is fit, but also, [that is only] one part; the other part is the quality and he is showing the quality.

“That is why he is with us. We can count on him. We didn’t want to force to buy a new centre-back because of him – because we believe in him so much.”

O’Shea got his first taste of the Championship in December, coming off the bench early in the second half of a 1-1 draw with Brentford. With that 41-minute outing, he was already convincing Bilic that his faith in the Dubliner was being vindicated.

“I am going to praise him, because I know he isn’t going to be ‘big time’,” the former West Ham United and Everton defender said afterwards. “Dara is the future, and he can be the present… I believe in him. Based on today, he’s a player. I love Dara.”

It was the first of 17 appearances that O’Shea made in a Championship campaign that has culminated with an upgrade to Premier League status for the 2020-21 season. 

As well as contributing to the keeping of eight clean sheets, he demonstrated his offensive capabilities by scoring three times. He was also rewarded with a long-term contract which takes him beyond his 24th birthday.

west-bromwich-albion-v-derby-county-sky-bet-championship-the-hawthorns O'Shea pictured during West Brom's recent clash with Derby County. Mike Egerton Mike Egerton

“It is unbelievable. I couldn’t have imagined being in this position at the start of the season,” O’Shea said earlier this month as West Brom closed in on promotion.

“At the start of the season I was looking at going out on loan. But the gaffer has been great with me. He integrated me into the group right from the start and I’ve been able to grow as a player because of it.”

Had O’Shea been sent out on loan, it’s unlikely to have been a prospect that would have fazed him. His first experience of competitive senior football came at Hereford in 2017-18. He went out on loan again last season, playing 33 times for League Two club Exeter City.

Describing him as an “exceptional” talent who could “go all the way”, Exeter manager Matt Taylor also said of O’Shea: “He was a manager’s dream in terms of the loan because he wanted to improve, he wanted to learn and develop. 

“Thankfully he put in some good performances and he’s gone back to West Brom a better player because he invested in the club and it worked out well that we had him for the season.

“That’s what we want from loan players, people who it really matters to, and those that aren’t selfish about their own performances and they’re all about the team. Dara was a shining light in terms of that and we wish him all the best because he’s one who will go on to bigger and better things.”

dara-oshea Playing for St Kevin's Boys in the U13 National Cup final in 2012. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Shea epitomises the advantages of temporarily dropping down the levels in order to accelerate development, rather than lingering for too long in the academy system where the benefits on offer from U23 football eventually become stale.

Former Ireland U18 international JJ Kayode is a firm advocate of that approach, having left Championship-bound Rotherham United this season for loan spells with Gateshead in the Conference North and Carlisle United in League Two. 

In a recent interview with The42, the 20-year-old striker said: “Young players tend to think that going outside the Football League to go on loan isn’t worth it, but I can tell you now that it’s the best thing you could do early in your career.

“It gives you a great insight into what men’s football is really like. Playing for three points somewhere else is a lot better than staying where you are and continuing to play reserve games where there’s no atmosphere or buzz.

“In those games for Gateshead, I was playing in front of crowds and playing with and against guys whose livelihoods are at stake. If they don’t get the three points at the weekend, it has an effect on how they can live their lives. That makes it properly competitive.

“I’ve played with players who have been on loan in the Conference before and I hadn’t known about it because they were almost ashamed to say that they were playing at that level. I’ve also played with guys who went there on loan and found it much tougher than they were expecting.”

dara-oshea O'Shea has been capped 10 times by Ireland at U21 level. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

While O’Shea’s contribution has significantly aided West Brom’s cause, it’s also promising for his country. He was one of the standout players for Stephen Kenny’s talented U21 crop in 2019, so the new Ireland senior boss is sure to be encouraged by his recent progress as he attempts to usher in a successful new era for the Boys in Green.

Excelling at Premier League level and graduating to the senior international squad will considerably increase the demands on O’Shea, who has proven adept at rising through the levels thus far.

He’s had a remarkable couple of years, but perhaps the dream is only just beginning.

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