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Why John O’Shea is the most underrated player in Irish football history

O’Shea, Ronnie Whelan and Liam Whelan won plenty of medals but did they ever win the respect their talent deserved? Garry Doyle puts together a list of unsung heroes.

O'Shea celebrates his last-minute equaliser against Germany on his 100th cap.
O'Shea celebrates his last-minute equaliser against Germany on his 100th cap.
Image: DPA/PA Images

1: John O’Shea (Manchester United, Sunderland, Reading – 118 Ireland caps)

Three-hundred-and-ninety-three times he played for United, one game shy of David Beckham’s total for the club, two fewer than Nobby Stiles. Yet year after year he would hear the suggestion — even from commentators as respected as John Giles — that he was a bit-part player. “I feel for the sake of his career, John should have moved from United earlier,” Giles wrote in his memoirs, The Great and The Good. “There is nothing better than playing week in and week out to make the most of your ability.”

Yet the thing is that during the noughties, when United were challenging on four fronts season after season, none of their outfield players played week-in, week-out. Squad rotation wasn’t just a policy, it was a physical necessity.

In this context, O’Shea – their left back, cum right back, cum centre back and sometime central midfielder – thrived, averaging 45 games per season. From his breakthrough year in 2002 until he left for Sunderland, there was only one occasion when he played fewer than 30 games in a season. And that 2009/10 campaign was cut short in November with injury.

The season before, this supposed understudy played 54 games for United, more than anyone else, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand – even Edwin Van der Sar.

It wasn’t his only prolific season. In 2002/03, O’Shea featured in 52 games, five more than he managed the following season. He played 49 times in 2006/07; 47 in 2005/06.

Now you can’t ignore something else, either, namely that 92 of O’Shea’s appearances came off the bench. Yet even when you take those figures into account that still leaves him at the 300-mark before we mention his appearances in the 2004 FA Cup final, 2009 Champions League decider as well as two successful League Cup finals. Along the way, he played 83 Champions League games. 

“Someone recently said I played 250 games for United,” O’Shea said to me in an interview last year, the day after he retired. “I was thinking ‘yeah, you’re 140 games shy there’. About ten years ago, when a lot was being made of it in Ireland, I did think ‘do we not want our countrymen operating at that level?’

“People are entitled to their opinion but for me, I always felt a big part of it at United. Even my final season there, I played over 30 games for them. Five Premier League medals, that’s something I’m extremely proud of.”

He should be because only two Irishmen have won the Premier League more than him: Roy Keane and Denis Irwin. Recently, post lockdown, there have been a series of greatest-ever team-lists produced. The two Cork-men have been ever-presents, O’Shea conspicuous by his absence, considered ‘a good all round player’. Well, he was much more than that. As understudies go, he was the busiest in history.

2: Liam Whelan (Manchester United, four Ireland caps)

How good was he? We rely on eyewitnesses to tell us. All we know are the bare statistics, the collection of just four Ireland caps, and return of 52 goals from 98 appearances for United.

Twice he was a league title-winner; twice he helped United reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, and in the first of those two seasons, 1956-57, only two men, John Charles and Jackie Mudie, surpassed his tally of 26 league goals.

billy-whelan Whelan was a genuine great, his life cut tragically short in the air disaster at Munich. Source: PA

But remember they were centre forwards, Whelan a midfielder. “He was tremendous,” Matt Busby would later say. “A brilliant finisher but also a creator. Bobby Charlton took his place in the team just before Munich but the plan was to play both of them, Bobby as the inside left, Billy [as Whelan was known in Manchester] as our inside right.”

That was the tactic Busby deployed in the 1957 FA Cup final, until Peter McParland’s outrageous challenge on Ray Wood resulted in the injured goalkeeper being replaced and the United team being re-arranged, Whelan relocating to left half, where he impressed the Manchester journalists to such an extent that they named him man of the match.

“I saw him play,” Eoin Hand, the former Ireland manager, said. “Now bear in mind, I was only an 11-year-old at the time, so I hadn’t the wisdom or experience I’d subsequently gather. But even at that young age, you could tell that he was outstanding.

“Duncan Edwards — considered the greatest player in England at the time — marked him. Liam nutmegged Duncan. He was brilliant.

“Where does he rank in terms of the greatest players Ireland have ever produced? Well, you have Gilesie [John Giles] at No 1, for sure. Roy Keane’s up there. Liam Brady, Paul McGrath. For me, Mark Lawrenson would be in the top five, because Mark was a Rolls-Royce. After that, Liam Whelan.”

High praise. The tragedy is his life was cut short at Munich just as he was about to reach the prime of his career.

3: Ronnie Whelan (Liverpool, Southend, 53 Ireland caps)

Whelan was a genuine great, borne out by the statistics, the 494 appearances for Liverpool – the six league titles, two FA Cups, three League Cups and European Cup.

You think back to the contributions he made in big games, the match-winning goals he got in the 1982 and 1983 League Cup finals, the defence splitting pass he delivered to Ian Rush in the ’86 Cup final, the fact he is one of only four Irish internationals to lift the FA Cup as captain in the post-war era.

top-10-greatest-fa-cup-finals Ronnie Whelan lifting the FA Cup in 1989. Source: PA

“Ronnie always had a passion and hunger to succeed,” Phil Thompson, another former Liverpool captain, said. “Mentally he was so strong. To play that often for Liverpool, you had to be.” Only two Irish players, Keane and Irwin, won more major medals than him. It isn’t that he has slipped under the radar or that he wasn’t considered to be good. Does everyone realise how talented he was, though? The lingering suspicion is they don’t.

4: Andy McEvoy (Blackburn Rovers, Limerick, 17 Ireland caps)

Since the first league championship was contested in 1888, only two Irishmen have ever finished top scorer in English football’s top tier. One of those players – John Aldridge – you’ve heard of. But how many of you remember Andy McEvoy? The Bray-man was joint-top scorer along with Jimmy Greaves in the 1964-65 First Division season; a year after he finished second on the list.

It’s a story, and an accomplishment, we should never forget.

soccer-football-league-division-one-west-ham-united-v-blackburn-rovers McEvoy (centre) was joint-top scorer in 1964/65 alongside Jimmy Greaves. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

5: Paul Osam (St Patrick’s Athletic, Derry City, Shamrock Rovers)

Standing 6ft 4ins tall, his was a colossal presence on the park, his physical advantages aided by a sharp intelligence and flawless technique — allowing him to consistently be one of the League of Ireland’s better players between 1995 and 2003, and clearly its best in the 1998-99 and 2001-02 seasons.

paul-osam-celebrates-scoring-641999 Osam pictured in 1999, the year he was named player of the season. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“Paul would have really fitted in at a top-level Dutch, Belgian or French club,” Brian Kerr, the former Ireland manager who brought Osam into professional football, later said. “He was superb.” Statistics back up Kerr’s assertion, Osam winning five League of Ireland titles, which would have been a sixth in 2001/02 but for an administrative error.

Over the decades, a number of League of Ireland players have been undervalued or unnoticed by the wider world. Osam was among the best of them.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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