As a literature teacher by trade, I’m constantly using literary heroes to try and inspire young hearts and minds.
I know that in the expansive world of creative writing there are a stacks of examples of young naive heroes - all square jaws and courage, welded together with six packs and biceps - who cannot become the saviours their worlds need them to be without the wise, experienced influence of an aging mentor. A steady hand who can guide them through the insurmountable obstacles that lie craftily between death and glory.
But mentors are also used by up and coming evil doers too. Those intent on destroying that which is good. Those who want to strangle hope and kill the dreams and wishes of the very people they should be protecting.
So whether you wish to build something great or destroy all that is promising it seems that neither can be achieved without an elder statesmen. An old hand. An experienced voice who has seen it, done it and printed all the t-shirts himself and sold the lot.
So in our very own ‘Game of Groans,’ there is one who steps forward. The classic mentor figure. A man just offered a new one year contract at our crumbling fortress. A man who has a magical serum called Guinness running through his veins. A man once deemed almost worthy to inherit the Cape of the Emerald Isle, sewn and stitched together from the same mystical cloth that once held in place the legendary Disco Pants of an Irish King.
The clichéd ‘old head’ himself, John O’Shea.
But is he the right choice? Is he the right man? Should we have placed him on such a pedestal or just wielded the sword and put him out of his misery? What kind of figure will he be in the crucial kill or be killed season ahead in the combative and unmerciful championship.
There are two schools of thought and both are compelling. One is a simple but none the less truthful argument that O’Shea is past it. His legs have gone. He’s not too dissimilar to other knackered old pit ponies we’ve hired for similar purposes like Steven Pienaar and Joleon Lescott. Let’s be honest we all feel short changed by those two and many others like them, who’ve earned tremendous coin from Sunderland for offering very little - or it could be argued - nothing at all. They were the kind of so called mentors who’s experience count for naught. In truth they did not offer and nor did Moyes utilise such valuable know how. Either they were unwilling to positively teach others or simply unbothered by the process because like classic evil mentors they’re selfish and are happy to suck the goodness out of the situations they find themselves in. As long as their needs are met, the rest of the universe can jump! They create implosions and unbalances and when all in their path is left desolate they leave for their next destination and repeat the process. Their grand Mentor, David Moyes is as guilty of this as the elder statesmen cronies he brought in to ‘steady the ship.’ All they’ve done is sink it.
The other school of thought regarding O’Shea is equally as coercive and convincing. He’s been with us since 2011 and has proven that while he may have been in the twilight of his career he was in it for the long haul. And despite his legs beginning creek and crack he cannot be accused of a general lack of effort. Whether his body is able or not has not influenced his desire to work. He feels like he’s part of the fabric of the club - admittedly a fabric that has been rotten in some areas for years.
But despite all the constant rotation of managers, the upheaval in the board room and all the histrionics in between, O’Shea has appeared as one who tries at least to genuinely ‘steady the ship.’ I’d estimate he’s had a tremendous amount more influence of the dressing room in the last 6 years than the one-season wonder managers who have trotted in and left us in the lurch. Some may say he’s part of the overall problem, he’s been part of a squad who have constantly failed to impress or move forward. But which fractured squad, led by an uninterested billionaire, a succession of terrible Chief Executives, a series of badly picked and under supported managers could have done much better? Yet despite other offers O’Shea wants to stay.
I repeat, a player WANTS to stay at Sunderland. That’s what real mentors do. When all goes south, they remain until the job is done or until another can come forward and take the mantle of mentorship and develop the young bucks even further. He could have walked. He could have joined other clubs on similar money. He could have picked up his five Premier League titles, his FA Cup winners medal, his three League Cup winners medals and his Champions League winners medal and limped into the sunset. But he wants to stay and see it through.
The Sunderland Echo says it’s a ‘no brainer’ that he stays. The Chronicle describes his signing as a ‘huge boost.’
Our search for new heroes and young messiahs has never been so desperate. What young lions will roar to begin a new chapter at the Stadium of Light? There is too much uncertainty for us to get the answer to that. But we do know that if and when they appear, they will have a mentor who has a treasure chest full of medals, 18 years top flight experience in the Premier League battle fields and someone who has a genuine connection to the club. He’s not the perfect mentor, but he’s the best we’ve got and sometimes imperfect mentors have the most to offer.