When news emanated last night that John O’Shea is set to join up with Paul Clement at Reading, I must admit that I breathed what was an almighty sigh of relief.
O’Shea, for all the stick he’s taken from supporters in recent years, has - in public at least - carried himself as an honest, decent person throughout his time at Sunderland.
You only have to analyse the outpouring of admiration and respect we’ve seen for him since he announced his retirement from international football as an example of just how widely revered he is from people within the game - an honest pro who, on the face of it, most people haven’t got a bad word to say about.
O’Shea played forty games last season - a staggering amount for a man that has just turned 37 years of age. Considering the fact that Sam Allardyce phased him out of action towards the end of the 2015-16 season, instead preferring the combination of Younes Kaboul and Lamine Kone in the centre of our defence, it’s actually quite remarkable that two years later he was still playing sometimes twice a week in a physically demanding league like the Championship. Irrespective of his performances on the pitch, you have to give him credit for keeping himself in good condition at an age where most players have long since retired.
It’s perhaps a testament to the type of character that he is that you see such adulation for a man who quite literally captained Sunderland AFC throughout the worst period in our storied history.
Under the watch of O’Shea we’ve seen an incredible malaise and decline set in at this club on the pitch, and though he’s obviously a great person you can’t help but concede that shunting him along two or three years ago might have helped Sunderland to move forward, and not backwards.
As someone who stays connected to just about every single thing that goes on at this club on a daily basis, I can’t help but feel that not enough is made by my fellow supporters of the fact that Sunderland have stagnated so significantly in terms of on-field leadership.
Many fans - even after our two horrific relegations - still feel significant warmth towards the likes of John O’Shea and (to a slightly lesser degree) Lee Cattermole, but for me I think their sheer presence has played its part in holding our squad back for years now.
How can you possibly change the mentality of a group when, manager after manager, the same dressing-room leaders remain? I don’t know how, feasibly, that ‘rot’ (and I use that word loosely, fully aware of the connotations attached to it) can ever be removed when the same faces, good and bad, hang around the club like a bad smell.
It’s not just the likes of Cattermole and O’Shea either, but it’s the backroom staff that interact every single day with the players.
Towards the end of Ellis Short’s reign it became normal for the manager to change once or twice in a season, and the one common theme with each appointment was that, beyond bringing in an assistant manager, the same coaching structure remained in place.
It just cannot be possible to start afresh and re-captivate a group of players that have grown accustomed to losing when the feel and look of the place hasn’t really changed beyond the voice of the person shouting instructions at them on a matchday.
This isn’t an attack on O’Shea, but quite the opposite - it’s recognition that, whilst he’s obviously a decent person, Sunderland AFC cannot move forward whilst he’s part of this club. We absolutely NEED to change our leadership structure, from top to bottom.
New captains are needed. New characters are essential in the dressing room, and they don’t have to be ones that ‘know’ the club. Anyone that knows this club understands that there’s a type of negativity that has been attached to us for far too long. Instead, we must bring people to Sunderland that want to improve with us, and understand the opportunity at their disposal.
When Charlie Methven spoke about ‘the p*ss-taking party’ being over, it’s important that we understand that he wasn’t just talking about the bad eggs. This club not only needs a culture change and a kick up the arse, but it needs a root-and-branch removal of sorts, and that unfortunately means that some good people will be taken with it if we are going to get the job done properly.
I have no doubt that, whatever O’Shea does after his playing career ends, he’ll make a decent fist of it. He’s most definitely going to end up in management, and the opportunities will fall at his feet, such is the good reputation that he has in the game. But let’s be fair - John O’Shea needs a fresh change just as much as Sunderland AFC does.
So it’s with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to John O’Shea, and Billy Jones... and probably a big handful of others too that have, in all honesty, outstayed their welcome at this club. Onwards and upwards.