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EXCLUSIVE IPG – John O’Shea: "Cristiano Ronaldo impressive. To stop Messi? Two on one is not enough. I'll tell you my playing philosophy"

Il Pallone Gonfiato recently carried out a 360-degree interview with football giant John O’Shea, Manchester United and Ireland’s iconic footballer: ‘Ferguson and Trapattoni, extraordinary people’

Francesco Rossi
17.06.2021 14:54

O'Shea - Eurosport


Interviewing football giant John O’Shea is not something that happens every day. Pallone Gonfiato managed to do so, carrying out an interesting 360-degree interview with ex Manchester United and Ireland’s football legend - now assistant coach at Reading and assistant manager of Ireland’s Under-21. O’Shea’s career has been rewarded with a lot of success and a rich list of victories that includes five Premier League titles, one Champions League title and one World Club Cup, amongst other trophies. O’Shea is an immense player, technically and tactically excellent, very physical, and able to play different roles on the pitch. A unique defender, he was an important and invaluable element for managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni. Having played 118 caps and scored three goals for Ireland, O’Shea is the third most capped footballer in Ireland.

Interview by Francesco Rossi; translation by Manuela Spinelli (Giovanni Trapattoni’s official interpreter 2008-2014) and Liam Francis Boyle (Professor of English at Università degli Studi di Perugia). 


You’ve had a great career, big matches, great performances, and of course some crucial goals. Please tell us about a few of your favourite memories for club and country. Looking back, is there one outstanding performance that comes to mind?

"I’ve been fortunate to have some very good memories and be involved and score, in some very important games: for Manchester United, I scored the winning goal against Liverpool, when we went on to win the league that year. Then there are the games for Ireland: getting my hundredth cap and scoring against Germany, world champions in 2014, to equalize late in the game. Those memories are very special, just like scoring the winning goal against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final, in the first leg at Old Trafford in 2008 - we went on and reached the pinnacle with Manchester United and got to the final against Barcelona that year. And then obviously,  to be involved when we won it in Moscow, but also when I played in the starting team against Barcelona in the final in Rome in 2008/09. Unfortunately we didn’t win that night, but it was a great experience".


What did it mean for you to play for a big club like Manchester United, and how do you think they’re doing under your old team-mate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer these days?

"It was an unbelievable spell in my career, to join Manchester United at 17, and to stay there until I was 30 years of age was an incredible experience. Basically a 9 year involvement with the first team, and to win five Premier Leagues, the FA Cup, the League Cup, and to be successful in Europe, the Champions League, and the World Club Cup as well… amazing memories and some great experiences, with one amazing manager, Sir Alex, and some amazing players. It was an incredible experience, one that I’ll always cherish, because you have to work so hard to stay, and to be involved, at Manchester United, so it’s one I’m very proud of. Over the last couple of seasons, my old team mate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has done a fantastic job of bringing back a good identity to the club, and there are some great prospects coming through at the club again in the youth system, and I think they’ll go from strength to strength with Ole Gunnar as the manager".


You were one of the great defenders in the history of Manchester United. Were there any players you loved coming up against? You also played well in other positions when the need arose, for example stranding in for Van Der Saar against Tottenham in the 06-07 season, when you kept a clean sheet. What do you remember about that game between the sticks?

"The most difficult players I came up against when I was at Manchester United? In training I was up against some amazing players… to learn from Giggs, Ronaldo, Rooney, Nani, Tevez, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and when I was younger, Andy Cole. Having to test yourself against them was a great challenge. Then, obviously, the players in the Premier League at the time, the rivals when we were going for the title, when we had to face Arsenal and Chelsea… and then later on players like Aguero, at Chelsea Drogba, very difficult opponents, Henry at Arsenal, Dennis Bergkamp, Robben and Duff when they were on the wings for Chelsea too, players like that. The Premier League had lots of challenges, and not just players from the big teams, because the league is full of quality players

As for the time I went in goal for Edwin, down at Tottenham, at White Hart Lane, that was a very good experience. You have to remember we were winning, I think it was 4-0 at the time, and I was able to use some of my experience from Gaelic football in Ireland, from when I was a kid. Thankfully it was a very good experience. I was able to take the ball from my countryman Robbie Keane on a 1 v 1 when, I think, Rio Ferdinand hit a bad back pass, I was able to intercept the ball from Robbie, and thankfully keep a clean sheet. So I have a 100% record for clean sheets in the Premier League!"


You were right there when Henry handled the ball in the 2010 World Cup playoff in Paris. What are your memories of that night? A lot of people would say that the introduction VAR can be traced back to that football. What are your thoughts on the use of VAR so far?

"I got injured in the game, probably the worst injury of my career. I was out for three or four months after the game, so that was difficult, and it was obviously a very difficult night because afterwards we saw how clear the foul was, the handball. It’s a difficult one to take at the time, and later on, because we played so well on the night. You’d hope the referee and assistants would spot that, but it wasn’t to be, and we had to move on. And we did move on, but it took a long time, because obviously it’s a chance to get to a World Cup. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that in my career. Yes, I had some good success at club level, and to reach the Euros with Ireland was amazing too - to represent your country at a major tournament is what you want to do when you play for your country. VAR would have helped the situation that night. It would have been very clear, it would have been a free out for us, and we would have had a chance to go on and win the game, so it’s a difficult memory. 

As for VAR, I think it will improve; it’s obviously taking time for everyone to get used to it in the Premier League and it’s the interpretation from the video referees who are watching it that needs to improve. They need to help the referees on the pitch, because it seems that some simple decisions and interpretations are still not being spotted. Hopefully that will improve, and VAR will be an improvement for the game in time". 


We know you’re interested in moving into management after your recent retirement. Please tell us something about learning the ropes recently as a coach at Reading and with the Irish under 21 lads. As a coach, what are the fundamentals of your approach to training – and what do you see as the best way to play the game?

"Coaching with Reading and the Ireland Under 21s is the start of a new chapter in my career now. On the coaching side, I’m looking to hopefully be a manager or a head coach one day. The experiences I’ve had so far have been very enjoyable, learning from good people. You also learn to adapt and make sure the players understand as much as they possibly can, not only on the training pitch, but also in video meetings, and analysis meetings, that they fully understand what you’re trying to implement, and the ideas that you want to get across. Sometimes they say they understand, but when you ask them on the pitch they’re a little bit confused, so it’s making sure the ideas you want to get across are clear to your players, and they understand, so they can transfer that to the training pitch, and also to the match situation. You’re learning about all these things, getting the players to understand your ideas as quickly as possible. As soon as that happens the results are better on the pitch.

As for my ideas on how the game should be played, obviously you want to have, not just a possession game, but also to make teams that you face realize they’ve had a very tough game, with your team’s intensity and quality, and you make the opposition defend. As much as possible, that high intensity with pressure on the opposition is high up the pitch, but also understanding that every team is different and they have different threats and strengths that can also cause you problems. It’s to get the balance right, but mainly to attack as much as possible and have a good defensive structure, not just from the back four and the goalkeeper, but also from the midfield and attack, that they understand that we attack as a team, and we defend as a team together. They would be the main principles"


You’ve had some legendary managers like Sir Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni. What do you think, looking back, about working with them, and what did you learn from the experience that you can bring with you in your coaching career?

"As for the managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Giovanni Trapattoni, two amazing managers that I worked under for a long time for my club, Manchester United, and my country, Ireland. First of all before I mention them as managers, I would say two amazing people, you can see how they’ve been successful in their careers, because they’re very good people, they understand people very well, and they can maximise their potential as individuals, and they bring it together to be successful in a team environment. And that’s something that I’ve taken from both of them: what it takes to be successful as a team is to get the best from the individuals, and then to combine that individual work as a collective. If you can do that, and also understanding the different elements in a team, in a squad, that it’s the balance in the team - from the outside certain people think certain players should be playing in this system or that system, but it’s a balance that’s needed in the team to be successful. That’s something you understand from working with these two amazing managers, that it’s getting the best out of the individuals, and also having the balance in the team".


You used to play beside the five time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United. What are your thoughts about this extraordinary athlete, both as a player and as a team mate? 

"Having Cristiano Ronaldo as a teammate was obviously incredible. I was involved in the first game he played against Manchester United for Sporting Lisbon. He signed with the club after the game. To watch his career has been incredible, and to still show that level of performance at Juventus is incredible, it shows his dedication and desire to be one of the best performers in world football continually. The fact that he is still breaking goal scoring records tells you all you need to know about Cristiano. He’s incredibly dedicated and obviously self-driven. But also, in the dressing room as a player, when he was learning so much, it was great to see the hunger and desire he had to become the best player in the world. Ronaldo and Messi have continually been incredible over the last ten or twelve years. The standards they’ve set in terms of goal scoring and the success they’ve had… it was great to have him as a teammate and to share the success that we had along the way was fantastic".


You came up against Lionel Messi in two Champions League finals, and again playing for Ireland. From a top defender like yourself, what do you think are the best tactics to limit a player as difficult to mark as the Argentinian?

"Messi? Having faced him in the Champions League final, and I played against him with Ireland too, it’s very difficult to stop Messi because he has a low centre of gravity. He’s also very strong for a small player, and obviously his timing and his touch are incredible. So the more players you can get around him, as quickly as possible, to stop him the better, but then his teammates get more space sometimes, so there’s that balance to consider; if you can get one or two players to shut him down that bit quicker, I think that’s the best advice with regard to stopping Messi, but sometimes, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t matter how many players you get around him to stop him, he has the ability to go past the players and still score and hurt you. It was just great to be able to have the chance to play against this player, because he’s considered one of the best players in the world, if not the best"


Thank you so much John! It was a pleasure did this interview with you!

Thank you, it was a pleasure for me too. Best Wishes to you all.