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'I worked for the crown prince for 5 years in Dubai' - The Irish coach plotting Celtic's Europa League downfall

Sean O’Shea is hoping to help AIK overcome the Scottish champions.

Sean O'Shea will be on AIK's bench during tonight's Europa League clash away to Celtic.
Sean O'Shea will be on AIK's bench during tonight's Europa League clash away to Celtic.
Image: AIK

IT’S BEEN QUITE a journey so far for Sean O’Shea in his football career.

The 37-year-old was born in Huddersfield to Irish parents, and always considered himself more Irish than English.

“You hear about it a lot — Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds, there are so many second generation Irish people that live there,” he tells The42.

“When we grew up, I played Gaelic football as well as football. We had a Huddersfield Irish centre where we all used to go as kids when we were outside school, because that’s where our parents went. We’d watch Celtic games, and we’d watch the rugby [when Ireland played] and the Gaelic. It’s just the way we were brought up.

“Now, mum and dad are back in Ireland and my sister is back in Ireland — aunties, uncles and grandparents are all back in Ireland. So we were born and raised in England, but we do feel more Irish than English.”

A promising young footballer, O’Shea joined Huddersfield’s academy as a teenager, but was released two years later aged 18. There were short stints playing non-league with Halifax Town and Buxton, but his career at that level proved short-lived.

The youngster finished up playing at 21, but didn’t leave football behind entirely. Instead, O’Shea moved to Dubai, where his brother worked, setting up a junior academy and taking his first steps into coaching.

“I had that for six or seven years,” he explains. “That was just coaching ex-pat kids as part of extra-curricular stuff, after school and whatnot. I [ultimately] sold that company.”

O’Shea then moved to Tromsø in Norway, serving as an U19s coach in the national league’s top tier, while also resurrecting his playing career in the country’s third division.

After a couple of years in Scandinavia, his contract elapsed, and he decided to move back to England, taking a job in Huddersfield’s academy for two years.

“Then I got offered a job as Head of Football, so I started a contract with the Sheikh back in Dubai,” he explains. “So I worked for the crown prince for five years in Dubai. And that’s how I ended in a role working with individual players and working with teams as well when they come over to Dubai for a training camp.

“When I went back to Dubai, I was unsure of how it was going to go. The Sheikh had built this facility. I didn’t really know how it was going to evolve, or what I was going to do with it. Once one or two teams came over for training camps that [helped it develop] really well.

The coaching really kicked in the first time United came in 2013 when David Moyes was the manager. Patrice Evra ended up coming back that season. I worked with him and it just spread from there. I ended up working with 25-30 players over the course of five years. I worked with Pat every year, with the club or going back [on an individual basis] before pre-season.

“I ended up working with some great players — Virgil van Dijk, Victor Lindelof, Adnan Januzaj… Luke Shaw I worked with three or four times. A lot of the Bournemouth lads — Harry Arter, Adam Smith, these players all came over.

“I suppose I developed quite a good reputation with these guys, and they kept coming back and working with us.

“Dubai is a great place for footballers to go, because they’ve got the facilities and the sunshine and the hotels, so I can’t say it was all me [that attracted the players].”

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Round of 16 - Second Leg - Manchester United v Olympiakos - Old Trafford Former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra is among the many footballers O'Shea has worked with. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

And so what exactly were the players looking for from O’Shea?

“It kind of varies. We built good relationships with clubs, so in some cases, the clubs would send the players to it. For example: ‘This player is coming back from a certain type of injury, so we want him to come out and do some warm-weather training.’

“[We'd also work on] that transition from being injured and working with the physio to going back into first-team training. We’d kind of bridge that gap a little bit, so the players aren’t too far behind when they go back into first-team training.

“And obviously, players are different. There are different injuries. Like with Luke Shaw, for example, he used to come every year the last week of June. He wanted to do 10 days with us. He wanted to get extra fitness done before United went away on the pre-season tour to America at the beginning of July. So sometimes, it was dependent on the club, and sometimes, it was dependent on the player.”

He continues: “Evra was probably my favourite to work with. You probably see with the stuff he does online, he’s a funny guy. He’s such a good pro. He’s so committed to training. So he never ducks out of anything we ask him to do — whether it was on the pitch or in the gym, he would always do it and was very appreciative of it. And he’d always say to us, if there was anything he could ever do for us, he would do it. I had a good friendship with him.

Van Dijk was another good player to work with. You look at what type of player he is, he’s now probably the best defender in the world. To see how he trains and works, and how he takes care of himself, is really good. 

“I did a bit of work with Robbie Keane as well. When Robbie signed for ATK, they ended up doing a bit of training with us, but I’d met him previously, because I know Stephen McPhail quite well, so I’d be good friends with him. Working with Robbie was good. Growing up being an Ireland fan and getting to meet him and being friends — you don’t think about that when you’re a young kid playing football at the start of your career.”

Republic of Ireland v Oman - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium Ireland legend Robbie Keane is another player that O'Shea has worked with. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

As enlightening as these experiences often were, O’Shea eventually felt he needed a new challenge. AIK were one of the teams that would regularly attend his training camps. He got to know the players and staff over the years, having initially met them in 2014.

“They would invite me to Stockholm maybe once or twice a year to come to the big derby games,” he remembers. “I kind of became a supporter of the club, because of the relationship I’d built with the people that worked there. 

“After the second camp, they started to talk about ‘maybe one day when you’re finished in Dubai and the timing’s right, come and work with the club’. I’d got to a point in Dubai where I’d worked with a lot of great players and clubs, but I missed that day-to-day football environment. So I said if anything ever comes up, I’d be interested.

It just happened last November or December, their assistant coach at the time went to work with the Swedish national team. The sports director called. So the guy who was number three at the time moved up to number two and they brought me in as second assistant coach and individual coach.

“So I kind of have two roles where I work with the coaching staff and the manager, but with sports science, we’d also develop individual coaching with all the players. It’s quite interesting, because you hear a lot now of footballers having coaches outside of clubs doing individual work. AIK have been switched on enough to bring in someone who actually does it inside the club, so you can control what the players do, which is really important.”

O’Shea has already earned his coaching A licence with the Football Association of Ireland, though the move to Stockholm meant he had to postpone recent plans to undertake a pro-licence course.

And the well-travelled coach’s arrival at AIK has coincided with one of the more successful periods in the club’s history. Last year, they were crowned Swedish champions for the 12th time, ending a nine-year wait for the trophy. O’Shea was not working for the club in an official capacity at that point, but was invited over for the final league game in which they sealed their long-awaited triumph.

The club’s key players include Seb Larsson, the 34-year-old former Birmingham and Sunderland midfielder, and Iceland international striker Kolbeinn Sigþórsson (better known to Second Captains fans as ‘the big boy up front Sigþórsson’). However, they will be without Norway international forward Tarik Elyounoussi, who is suspended for the first leg, while Swedish attacker Nabil Bahoui is also expected to miss out through injury.

Like Celtic, they have experienced European disappointment already this season, losing to Slovenian outfit Maribor on away goals in the Champions League qualifiers, before beating Sheriff of Moldova to reach this stage.

Imago 20190815 Former Birmingham and Sunderland player Sebastian Larsson is now at AIK. Source: Imago/PA Images

Meanwhile, with 10 games remaining, AIK are far from certain to retain the league title. On Sunday, they suffered a shock loss to Kalmar, a side who were third from bottom going into the game. That result left them third, one and four points adrift of Malmo and Djurgarden in second and first respectively.

Winning this tie, however, would be a significant boost for the Swedish club — they have only once competed in both the Europa League and Champions League group stages, as far back as 2012-13 for the former and 1999-00 in the latter, finishing bottom of the table on the two occasions.

So with all this in mind, do AIK regard themselves as underdogs going into the tie?

“We probably do, because when you look at Celtic’s history, you know what kind of a club they are. They’ve qualified for the group stages quite a lot in recent years.

“There’s a different type of pressure for both clubs. We want to progress to the group stages, because we want to progress as a club. Celtic want and need to progress, because of the financial side of it, or at least that’s what I see in the newspapers or on Twitter. 

“Looking at the Cluj game [when Celtic were knocked out of this year's Champions League], the fact that they conceded four goals at home, we’ve looked at it and we’ve got a gameplan to hopefully try to stop them from scoring, because they still did score three goals at home. It gives you a feeling that you’ve a chance, but you obviously have to go there and pull off a very good gameplan to get something out of it and still be in it at least when we come back to Stockholm.

If you look at the squads, I don’t think there’s much between the players, I think we’ve both got really good international players, so they’ll be two very good games.

“I know the atmosphere [at Celtic Park] can be intense and intimidating, but I think our players will get a buzz off that. We’re used to playing in front of 40,000 or 50,000 people in derby games. 

“I am looking forward to it, because I’ve never been to a match there and to sit on the bench for a European game is a really good feeling. My family and friends in Huddersfield and back in Ireland are all Celtic fans — it’s such a big thing, the messages and the bit of bantz I’m getting from them.”

Whatever happens in the two upcoming matches though, O’Shea can reflect with satisfaction at how far he has come in his profession of late.

“A few times on Instagram, coaches in Ireland and England have messaged just saying we’ve followed the story and it’s inspirational. I finished playing football when I was 21. I had no idea what I was going to do. I started at the very bottom where everybody has to start really. I just took every chance and every opportunity. I’ve coached for free, I coached women’s teams, junior teams and men’s teams. If you believe in yourself and you work hard, I think you will eventually get there.” 

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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