O'Shea's easy ways mask an edge as keen as his mentor's

Versatile Irishman is inspired by his captain's long-running story.
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Roy Keane wasn't in Dublin in midweek for the Republic of Ireland's friendly against Portugal. But his spirit was. It was there when Damien Duff grasped at Cristiano Ronaldo, glared into the Portuguese winger's eyes, waiting for a response, daring him to take up the challenge.

Roy Keane wasn't in Dublin in midweek for the Republic of Ireland's friendly against Portugal. But his spirit was. It was there when Damien Duff grasped at Cristiano Ronaldo, glared into the Portuguese winger's eyes, waiting for a response, daring him to take up the challenge.

Ronaldo is used to that look from a ferociously competitive Irishman when he plays - and trains - with Manchester United. Keane has been doing it for years. It's part of the high-octane fuel that drives him. But the shock was that this time it came from Duff. What was no surprise was that it was John O'Shea, a team-mate of both of the prodigiously talented players, one for club, one for country, who broke it up. Who acted as peace-maker and intermediary. It's a job he is suited to.

For O'Shea, with his easy smile, his steadiness, his confidence, is one of football's more balanced characters. It's probably what makes him so versatile. He has every chance of being in the United line-up, alongside Keane but probably not the injured Ronaldo, for today's derby against Manchester City. But quite where he is deployed is another matter.

"I just enjoy playing. I think I have played everywhere but up front," O'Shea says of his time at United since he arrived as a 17-year-old in the summer of 1998. "The gaffer knows I'll play wherever he wants me. But I do enjoy the midfield cameos I have been given recently." They have been alongside Keane, and the bond between the two is strong. Not that, on first sight, they would appear to share much apart from nationality.

There's O'Shea the athlete, with the grace of his mother, an Irish dancer, and Keane the scrapper, with his pugilist's scurry. There's O'Shea the mixer, Keane the loner. But both are driven, and it's not just because he is Irish that O'Shea sought out Keane when he first arrived at Old Trafford. "He has just been fantastic," O'Shea, now 23, says of the United captain, a decade his senior. "Roy keeps himself in such good condition. He's a great example for the players at the club, and at international level too."

Advice is readily given and received. But it's what Keane, at 33, does in matches which most impresses O'Shea, especially in recent weeks, when his form has surged back towards its peaks. "He has shown up the people who wrote him off," O'Shea says. "He has shown what he is about in big games against players who are supposed to be better than him, especially against Liverpool and Arsenal."

In those contests, Steven Gerrard and Patrick Vieira were eclipsed. The former was peripheral, the latter lost the battle in the tunnel, never mind on the pitch. "He [Keane] rose to the occasion each time," O'Shea says, "and he's playing as well as ever. You could say that Roy's at the peak of his game again, but if you listen to Keano he would tell you that he has been playing like that all the time." Keane, in truth, tends to be the hardest of task-masters with himself - sometimes even declaring he has had a "poor game" as he picks up the man-of-the-match champagne. But it's always 100 per cent. "I know I'm biased, but in my eyes Roy is still the best midfielder in the country," O'Shea maintains, though such accolades will not dissuade Keane from retiring at the end of his contract next season.

"He's one the reasons for the run we've gone on since we beat Arsenal the last time [in the Carling Cup] at Old Trafford." United have lost only one of 25 games - and that to Chelsea in the competition's following round.

But it was the recent, astonishing 4-2 victory at Highbury that stoked the Premiership race. O'Shea's memories are clear - as clear as the glass that his master-cutter father Jim used to fashion in the hometown factory that would later become Waterford Crystal. Especially as O'Shea scored. "It wasn't the winner, but it finished it off nicely," he says. "We were able to be comfortable in the last five minutes of injury time." It was an exceptional strike. "I initially thought about cutting back to lay the ball off to Wayne Rooney. I knew he was making a run across, but I just thought, 'Why not have a go?' "

His perfectly executed chip was testament to his own surging confidence. It also came from O'Shea's weaker, left foot. Even as recently as three years ago he could not kick comfortably on that side. But he worked at it, and to remarkable effect. There's determination as well as talent from a player who can make football look easy. Indeed, from the moment he first played, almost every club in Britain wanted him. Each weekend there was a different city to visit. Absurdly, when he finally plumped for United the centre-back, a position he maintains is still his best, was handed a three-year professional contract. Without a trial. For Keane, of course, it was harder. He was overlooked - too small, they said - and had to sit down and write to all 92 clubs.

But O'Shea has also found it harder of late. Two years ago he was a United regular, making 52 appearances. Last season, he himself admits, was a bit of a disappointment, with United then buying the accomplished Gabriel Heinze to be their left-back. It led to - unfounded - speculation that O'Shea was to be sold, although he claims he was "not one bit worried, because I knew I would be OK".

And even in that tricky second season he still played 48 times for United, more than anyone else. This season, too, he has featured. "I got back into the team at Christmas and was playing well at full-back, but I got injured again, which inter- rupted me," O'Shea says. "But I'm back fully fit and strong now, enjoying my football." His versatility, sometimes regarded as a hindrance, is the key at present - "I don't have a preference for a position as long as I'm in the team" - as is his confidence. It's shared. "Even though we've had lots of changes and a few injuries, everybody that has come in has carried that confidence with them, and kept the performances and results flowing."

The feeling is that United are building a head of steam for the season's finale. Especially as they followed the Arsenal victory with three more points. "We needed to win against Birmingham," O'Shea says. "Earlier in the season we beat Arsenal [to end their 49-game unbeaten run], but didn't follow it up. We went and blew it against Portsmouth. So we knew we couldn't do that again, with Chelsea not dropping many points."

Second place was the initial target. "First, we were concerned about overtaking Arsenal, which we have done," he says. Now for a tilt at the top. "I am sure there will be plenty more twists and turns." Chelsea's lead was trimmed as they drew with City last Sunday - before growing to 12 points yesterday - with Ireland's Richard Dunne imperious in City's defence. Gratitude was passed on at last week's training camp. "I went up to Richard, shook his hand and said, 'Well done'," O'Shea says. "He definitely did us a favour. He was fantastic, but I hope he has an off-day this Sunday."