by James Tyler
When I finally discarded my delusional, wayward visions of dribbling gallantly up and down football pitches for money, accepting my fate as a member of the tie-wearing rank and file – and I don’t knock; it’s a perfectly acceptable life – I began to look upon the game I’ve always loved with fresh eyes.
I still reserve space in my heart for the finesse of certain players or the workrate and impeccable attitude of others, but more often than not, I revel in the crowded tier of players existing a level or two below the Messis and Ronaldos of the realm. Of course the creme de la creme is where the fun often lies, but the real pleasure exists in watching a player like, say, Matthew Etherington, and then trying to figure out exactly what he’s doing. It’s like Inverting the Pyramid, and then setting it alight to simply watch it burn. For the Etheringtons of the world, soccer is a passion, a job, and a yoke around the neck. It’s a girlfriend that could dump them tomorrow if it felt like it could do better, and for that reason, they push out maximum effort on the pitch.
(To fully illustrate my devotion to this ideal, consider that one of my Anfield idols growing up in Wavertree was Rob Jones. Yes; I loved Barnes and Dalglish and Beardsley and all the greats before and after them, but Rob Jones stood out because I could relate to him. There was nothing interesting about Rob Jones, a quiet, unassuming right-back, the yin to Ashley Cole’s money-grubbing, slapper-slapping yang. He just did his job without fuss or complaint, without remonstration or fear of failure.
And, it so happens, he was so good at his job that Ryan Giggs reportedly named him as one of the best defenders he’d ever faced in battle; on Jones’ debut for the Reds, just 48 hours after signing from 4th Division Crewe Alexandra, he shackled the great Giggsy at Old Trafford and won unalloyed praise for his performance. He now runs a chain of nursery schools.)
But back to this idea of the ordinary triumphing in an extraordinary world. John O’Shea is one of the lucky ones that made it into the game, and while I left my soccer career in the dogshit-ridden alleyways of Liverpool, zipping between parked cars and trying not to smash windows with carelessly-aimed free kicks, he’s out there palling around with world-class talent and living the most charmed of lives. Can you understand why his very existence now grates me so? The fact that he sports United colors is the icing on the cake.
(And yes, I realize the envy of professional athletes could be applied to anyone and not just the living, breathing calamity I note above, but hear me out.)
Just keep saying his name. John O’Shea. John O’Shea. JohhhhnOShea. It blurs together just like everything he’s ever done. He’s a backdrop. A wallpaper. A nondescript button on the TV remote that you never ever need to push.
John O’Shea. An unremarkable lump of clay that has tried so hard to set down roots in a game that should, by all estimations, have passed him by, one that should have overlooked him as it overlooked me all those years ago.
John O’Shea. A sullen heap of bone and arteries, one that occasionally floats in an essential, game-saving, or game-winning cross for someone else to finish and accept glory.
John O’Shea. Scorer of that awful, ghastly, Pepe Reina-aided goal in the 92nd fucking minute in March 2007, gifting United a precious away win en route to yet another bloody trophy. (Another key moment in my dossier of O’Shea vitriol)
John O’Shea. The man that somehow usurped that oik G*ry Nev*lle for top spot in my ranking of least-liked United players in history. Considering that ol’ Gaz couldn’t so much as eat his breakfast without denigrating Scousers unprompted, I feel like poor John’s achieved something far grander than any trophy, cup, or Community Shield.
He was, at one time, my most hated United player, simply because of his alchemy in transforming mediocrity and the occasional mental lapse into a remarkably successful career. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player I’d deem to be equally inessential to any side with aspirations of glory — though fuck, does he ever sidle up to trophy presentations with infuriating ease — can’t hold a candle to John O’Shea. He can’t even clutch the wick while the wax sets when compared to John O’Shea, the world’s utility player, the ultimate everyman, the unwitting glue of the cosmos.
And here’s me, tie half-cocked at beer o’clock after yet another day in the publishing trenches, wondering why my clumsy stepovers committed time and time again in pothole-ridden streets didn’t endear me to a braying, jubliant home crowd of tens of thousands every weekend. Why could I not sputter along as a professional football player? Why, instead, did John O’Shea fill that void?
Nevermind my childish envy; fact is, Mr. O’Shea earns my respect because no matter what, there he is, cocking up royally anywhere from right-back to striker and back again, lacking in the self-awareness to stop. And why would he? The silverware piles up at his feet like thoughtless gifts of kitchen appliances tossed at a pair of doe-eyed newlyweds.
He’s John O’Shea, heroic, fun-loving fill-in goalkeeper, easily one of the best moments in the last decade of the shiny, vapid Premier League.