There is a standard question asked of footballers who can play in more than one position but never make any one their own and it goes something like this: "Do you feel you have suffered for your versatility?" It is one of the many unchallenged bits of nonsense in football.
The question invites the player to reply that he would have played more games, or accrued more status, were it not for his infuriating ability to play left-back as well as right-back. Had he not been able to make a decent fist of centre-back in an injury crisis, and do an occasional job in holding midfield then who knows what? He could have been the superstar, instead of the utility man.
It is a preposterous theory and nowhere is it better disproved than in the case of John O'Shea, Manchester United's willing Mr Fixit who should at last get to play in a European Cup final on Wednesday. O'Shea has not suffered for his versatility. He has not for the simple reason that if he could only play one position he would, most likely, no longer be a United player. His versatility, and his tenacity, have saved him.
O'Shea will be arguably the least glamourous name in Sir Alex Ferguson's team but his approach to his career has been admirable. He is a great example of how to survive as a United player when you are not among the very brightest talents at the club; he is a study in determination and patience. The sort of footballer who, having missed out on the final in Moscow last year, few would object to see wearing a Champions League winners' medal round his neck on Wednesday.
O'Shea has played in goal for United (Tottenham, February 2007) and as an emergency striker (Reading, August 2007) and just about every position in between those two. Yet in almost every transfer window since O'Shea broke into the United team properly in 2001, Ferguson has bought players to replace him: from Rio Ferdinand to Gabriel Heinze and Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and the Da Silva brothers.
Still O'Shea has defied his manager to the extent that come October he will be due a testimonial for 10 years' service. It hardly seems that long ago he was nutmegging Luis Figo when Real Madrid came to Old Trafford in April 2003 for that epic Champions League game. O'Shea never quite turned into the all-conquering prodigy he promised to be in that season in particular. But he still became crucial to United in his own way. He is the player who stayed to fight for his place and accepted whatever role offered to him. Every team, even United, needs one of those.
The mentality of the utility man matters and it is no surprise that O'Shea is known to be a decent bloke. On his way to an interview with a journalist colleague of mine he got a puncture, so he drove home and caught the tram into Manchester city centre instead. In most walks of life that would not warrant comment but in a professional footballer it demonstrates some pretty rare qualities: consideration for others, resourcefulness and a willingness to use public transport.
A glance at O'Shea's history at United tells you that every time someone has usurped him in one position, he has upped sticks and moved to another. Like the littlest hobo, O'Shea just keeps moving on, deputising for the injured and the out-of-form. In 2002-03, he played centre midfield in a League Cup game and left-back in Champions League games against Real Madrid and Juventus. When Mikaël Silvestre established himself at centre-back the next season, O'Shea moved to left-back. Then Heinze arrived and O'Shea was obliged to vacate his place again.
The sad thing about O'Shea's career is that now, at 28, he must look at the emergence of Rafael da Silva and wonder how long he has left at his current point of refuge at right-back. He inherited it from Wes Brown who dominated the position last season but whose injury has meant he has played twice since October. Where will the Irishman find his niche next season?
Thus it goes for the man with no position. In the most interesting interview he ever gave, more than five years ago now, O'Shea spoke about a fellow United junior who never made the grade, and how pleased he was their friendship had endured despite it being O'Shea who took his place in the United youth team. He spoke about how he carried the coffin at the funeral of Jimmy Davis, the United player killed in a car accident in 2003.
He also mentioned that his best friend in his hometown Waterford had committed suicide and in the letter he left behind had urged O'Shea never to give up on the dream at United. That O'Shea has fought to stay in United's team to the point where he will be playing in a Champions League final bears testament to a great character and – utility man or otherwise – a great career.
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