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Black Cats Analects: John O'Shea - Captaincy of Fire

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5 managers, 4 years, 3 goals, 2 late, late escapes from relegation but only 1 John Francis O’Shea. There’s a lot of reasons to like our Irish international captain – here’s nearly all of them.

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"… He is a wonderful professional both on and off the field … O’Shea’s wealth of experience and versatility will be great attributes for us …"

John O’Shea has captained Sunderland into an undefeated derby day run and out of three consecutive relegation battles.  John O’Shea has also captained Sunderland in and out of some humiliating humblings too.  Not a lot has been consistent on Wearside since John O’Shea became captain.  So, this wealth of experience and versatility – has it been good for us? Steve Bruce, you had no idea!

O’Shea has experience in abundance, we know that.  The Waterford native, at 21 years old, had gone from an AFC Bournemouth loanee in the grit of the old Second Division; to the continental culture of the Belgian Jupiler Pro League with Royal Antwerp FC; to the dizzy heights of the 2001/02 UEFA Champions League, as a blooming sub against Lille LOSC and Boavista FC.

That all came under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson at the well-oiled monopolised machine that is Manchester United.  By 22, O’Shea was capitalising on successive squad injuries and Rio Ferdinand’s moronic drugs test botch, to rack 47 apps for the Red Devils in the 2003/04 season; quickly becoming indispensable to Ferguson’s plans.

O’Shea’s commitment and versatility was rewarded with a successful tenure in Manchester despite the inclusion of more prominent defenders.  The Irishman featured sporadically in central and defensive midfield from 2005 to 2009; was often reshuffled to full back roles, replaced Edwin van der Sar between the sticks in February 2007 and even played as a lone striker in August 2008 when United entered a striker drought.  He participated in the awesome 7-1 KO over AS Roma, scored the winner at Anfield and contributed to United’s undefeated 2007/08 Champions League conquest.

It took Alex Ferguson a decade to even consider sale-sanctioning his workhorse utility man and was only (reluctantly) convinced by a 2009 dead legged blood clot and 2010 calf injury that O’Shea’s future was away from Old Trafford.  The Irish international’s career at United ended after the 2010/11 campaign; on 382 apps, 5 league titles and 10 trophies – 8 domestic, 2 international.  That’s as wealthy as experience gets.

So £3.96m for John O’Shea was a sensible snap-up for Sunderland on 7 July 2011.  Supporters favourably believed he was still good enough to play, and Steve Bruce believed he was good enough to be captain.  It was an understandable and positive appointment.  Lee Cattermole had been a spirited skipper but was then tagged with an unreliable disciplinary record that still unfairly taints him today; whereas Wes Brown – the logical first choice for captaincy – was way too injury prone to realistically be a constant presence in the first team.

O’Shea debuted as Sunderland’s captain in late August 2011 but his performances were received indifferently.  Neither Bruce nor Martin O’Neill retained the skipper as a centre back for the season, often repositioning him as a full back.  Overall, O’Shea’s 2011/12 season was not awful but had been overshadowed by Wes Brown, who was viewed as being more influential in instructing the back line (including O’Shea) on positional awareness.

The 2012/13 season heaped more unwanted attention upon O’Shea too.  As the team’s season-long comatose form brought fans to question the players’ motivation, the captain was pinned for his deficient on-field assertiveness.  O’Shea – the defender – was still recognised for his concentration, organisational presence and vision of the game; but O’Shea – the captain – was criticised for his inability to galvanise morale in matches.

The early 2013/14 chaos, though rightly attributed to the mismanagement of Paolo Di Canio, also blighted O’Shea’s captaincy, especially the 8-match winless streak that defined it.  Notable improvements began under Gus Poyet’s tenure, as O’Shea translated the Uruguayan’s pass-possession paradigm into matches.  His pass accuracy over the season escalated to 84% which, compared with his 79% seasonal best at Manchester United, was an example of the Irishman’s servility to his manager.

It has been much the same in this 2014/15 campaign.  O’Shea’s pass accuracy has remained at a high 83% ratio.  Exemplified by home fixtures against Chelsea, Burnley, and the away match against Tottenham Hotspur, the defender has gone through an extensive purple patch for Sunderland.  The St. Mary’s nightmare aside, most supporters agree that O’Shea has been in strong form this season.

He has nonetheless been a statistical yo-yo defensively for Sunderland.  For example, the 2012/13 season: of centre backs who played as many games as the Black Cats skipper, O’Shea’s ratios ranked 7th highest for interceptions and 8th highest for both blocked shots and clearances.  Yet, in the 2013/14 season, his interception ratio dropped to 19th highest; blocked shots fell to 21st and clearances to 14th.

But the startling contrast was in O’Shea’s total defensive actions.  In 2012/13, O’Shea made more defensive actions (371) than Phil Jagielka, Ron Vlaar, Per Mertesacker and Vincent Kompany.  However, in 2013/14 season, O’Shea committed only 246 defensive actions.  The season prior he had ranked 6th for total defensive acts, only to drop to 34th within a year.

As for this season, just as fans have suggested, O’Shea is seriously in form.  In this 2014/15 campaign, the defender has the 3rd highest ratio of interceptions for centre backs; 5th highest ratio of blocked shots, 6th highest for clearances and, most importantly, has committed 226 defensive actions – the 6th highest in the Premier League of centre backs with as many matches.

For defensive errors, O’Shea has a near-immaculate record on Wearside.  In 2012/13, Sunderland conceded 2 goals from 4 errors made by the captain.  That’s not great but was nothing compared to the defensive howlers of EA/FIFA darlings Martin Skrtel and Thomas Vermaelen that season.  Or the 2013/14 season when Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany combined their defensive blunders to concede 5 goals that season.  John O’Shea made none.  Or even this 2014/15 season when the entire Liverpool defensive line has made 16 defensive errors, conceding 6 goals.  John O’Shea has made none.

That all contributes to the steady presence O’Shea has in the heart of the Sunderland defence.  In the rare instances without him, Sunderland have looked less assured defensively, most infamously in the 5-1 mauling by Tottenham Hotspur in April 2014.

However, it is as the link in relations between management and players that John O’Shea has proven himself invaluable to Sunderland.  It is a less-acknowledged responsibility of his captaincy, yet is perhaps the most important contribution to Sunderlands survival in the Premier League.

As a defender for Manchester United, the Irishman was expected to adapt to positional changes under the reign of one uncomplicated manager with one uncomplicated game plan.  Yet, since his appointment as captain of Sunderland, O’Shea is undergoing a skipper’s never-ending baptism of fire; shifting positions, deciphering non-existent tactics, calming a player revolt, promoting playing styles that conflicted with his team mates’ individual strengths; all under five mangers with contrasting visions.

But, as captain, he still professionally reciprocated to management; and adapted to the standards set by this list of out-of-touch, egomaniacal and stubborn head coaches; both against the confusion amongst his team mates, the better judgment of supporters and, most likely, the better judgment of himself.  Few can argue that O’Shea has at least tried to translate these visions onto the pitch and to the players.

Sunderland is uniquely jammy to have a player of O’Shea’s inter-positional experience, as the defensive back line since 2011 has been beset with inconsistency.  O’Shea himself was not a fixed centre back until March 2012.  His preferred central partner, Wes Brown, is an injury jinx; and his substitutes have been either reshuffled, patched-up full backs or poor final-choice defenders.  The likes of Vergini, Coates, Roberge, Diakité, Cuéllar, Bramble, Turner, Kilgallon and Kyrgiakos have all partnered O’Shea since 2012. These haven’t been deliberate tactical decisions – Sunderland has no such luxury to be that blasé.

Simply put, O’Shea – as captain – has had to lead players best he can through a tumultuous four years.  It may be fair criticism that the teams occasional ‘down tools’ complacency is due to O’Shea’s lack of assertiveness as a leader.  However, emotional victories and cup final memories have also come under the defender’s on-field supervision.  It cannot be one or the other.  He’s still leading, win or lose, and the squad clearly respects him enough to follow him.

Considering the disorderly turnover of players and head coaches at Sunderland, the club is fortunate to have a captain in John O’Shea; one who has been ever-present, rarely injured, with a reliable disciplinary record and hardcore obedience toward management.  Should Sunderland avoid relegation again, supporters should recognise that the energy of new management only goes so far; and it’s the constant presence of one man trying to lead amidst so much disruption who deserves the long-term credit.

Because, until John O’Shea finds himself under one consistent manager again, he really is the leader Sunderland needs.