John O'Shea at his pre-match press conference.

O'Shea seeking upset against Portugal to make case to be full-time manager

Ireland face Euros-bound Portugal in their final game of the season tonight.

JOHN O’SHEA, CRISTIANO Ronaldo, and a summer friendly in Portugal. 

This is, of course, the origin story of Ronaldo’s big-time career. A jet-lagged Manchester United landed in Lisbon in 2003 to play a friendly game against Sporting, the players grudgingly honouring a club commitment to play the game in return for an understanding that they’d get first dibs on any next-gen stars coming out of the Sporting academy. 

O’Shea was then twisted and tortured by an acned, snake-hipped teenager whom he then urged Alex Ferguson to sign with whatever post-game breath he had left. 

It’s a slightly apocryphal tale: Ferguson had already met with Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes by then, and the deal was pretty much done before the game started. O’Shea was at least proof that Ferguson had made the right decision. (Roy Keane, meanwhile, was more interested in O’Shea’s performance, telling him he had played like a f*****g clown. Harsh.) 

“Slightly jet-lagged, but I do remember”, said O’Shea from Ireland’s base in Aveiro yesterday of that day 21 summers ago. 

“I won’t be playing, thankfully, tomorrow. Hopefully he is resting, hopefully he’s having another rest – he might need another week to prepare for the Euros.

“He’s an amazing footballer – still is – the records and goals that he’s still setting, his dedication and professionalism, and he’s getting his rewards for that.” 

birmingham-city-v-manchester-united O'Shea celebrates with Louis Saha and Ronaldo against Birmingham City in 2003. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

O’Shea’s thinned hair and new job title is merely the latest proof of Ronaldo’s astonishing longevity. Now 39, Ronaldo’s final act was not his surly World Cup exit in Qatar – dropped and chastened for the knockout rounds – and he has scored 44 goals in 45 appearances for Saudi club Al Nassr since. 

Ronaldo will definitely play some part tonight, though may do so off the bench in a friendly of far greater significance for the hosts. 

Portugal are plotting for the Euros, and this is their final tune-up before their opening game against Czech Republic tomorrow week. For Ireland it’s another contractually obliged friendly whose usefulness as preparation for the Nations League campaign in September has largely been written off by the FAI’s managerial odyssey. 

It’s like the saying goes: you are only ever six feet away from a linked Irish managerial contender in a city. Tonight you’ll find another: Anthony Barry, once assistant to Stephen Kenny, is wanted by the FAI, but seems much less on them. It’s understandable and hardly a slight on the FAI, given Barry’s star is sufficiently bright to earn a crack at Championship level in England. 

O’Shea continues to keep the seat warm, though continues to put his best foot forward in the event the FAI just decided to call off the search and hand him the gig. It’s difficult to see that happening from this point – surely if the FAI believed O’Shea was the right man, they would have appointed him permanently by now -  but hey, the pragmatic thing to do from here is to avoid predictions on whatever the FAI might do next. This search might euphemistically be termed an exercise in strategic ambiguity. 

Hence O’Shea has been prioritising results over experimentation during his interim stint, and it’s hard to see that changing tonight, where the quality of the opponent is such that a result – even a draw – would genuinely improve his case to get the job full-time. Another factor in his favour has been the fact that everyone has stuck together since the win over Hungary a week ago: a full week between friendly matches at the end of a long, arduous season – and in the middle of the Championship players holidays – can be a tough sell, but the fact nobody has dropped out speaks well to the environment O’Shea has created. 

Selection-wise, Jake O’Brien is likely to earn his first senior start in place of Shane Duffy, who was well off the pace against Hungary. Seamus Coleman will likely start again, but looked better at wing-back rather than in the back three against Hungary. Given Callum O’Dowda’s impressive turn off the bench in the same way, he will push Robbie Brady at left wing-back. Matt Doherty is a more defensively reliable option than either on the same wing. 

Adam Idah will surely lead the line again, while last week’s matchwinner Troy Parrott  deserves a start, with Finn Azaz the most vulnerable of last week’s starters. O’Shea might subtract a number 10 – probably Sammie Szmodics – for the defensive awareness and energy of a midfielder, in Jason Knight. We will also see Tom Cannon at some point, as he has committed his future to Ireland. 

june-04-2024-lisbon-portugal-portugals-and-manchester-united-midfielder-bruno-fernandes-8-in-action-during-the-international-friendly-game-portugal-vs-finland-credit-alexandre-de-sousaalamy Bruno Fernandes. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Portugal sprinted through qualifying with ease under Roberto Martinez, winning 10 games from 10 in an admittedly handy group, where their toughest opponent was Slovakia. The locals’ creeping scepticism about the true quality of their team was then confirmed by last week’s 2-1 friendly loss to Croatia, after which Ruben Dias took the positive outlook and said it was “good to be brought back down to earth.” 

He plays alongside a man almost as old as the earth itself, Pepe, now 41. Nuno Mendes of PSG is a fantastically talented left-back but Joao Cancelo is defensively dodgy at right-back, so Diogo Dalot of Manchester United may be preferred.  Fulham’s Joao Palhinha is the ball-winner in midfield. Martinez, having quickly junked the back three with which he started, has stacked his attack: Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes usually complete the midfield, while Diogo Jota and Rafael Leao offer further support for Ronaldo. Fernandes has arguably usurped Ronaldo as Portugal’s key man, but doubts persist as to whether that midfield is sufficiently heavyweight and defensively-minded to compete with the best sides in Germany. 

Ireland don’t have that luxury, and don’t even have the managerial clarity to treat this game as a means even to an end beyond the European Championship.

Lets just say it’s unlikely to be the kind of game with such significance that we will be talking about it 21 years later. 

Portugal (Possible XI): Diogo Costa; Diogo Dalot, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Nuno Mendes; Joao Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva; Diogo Jota, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Leao 

Ireland (Possible XI): Caoimhín Kelleher; Dara O’Shea, Jake O’Brien, Liam Scales; Seamus Coleman; Josh Cullen, Will Smallbone, Jason Knight; Robbie Brady; Troy Parrott, Adam Idah 

On TV: RTE Two; KO: 7.45pm 

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