There have been several times over the last decade when John O'Shea wondered if time would pass him by. He was on the way up when the Republic of Ireland qualified for the 2002 FIFA World Cup but as the years passed and missed chance followed missed chance, he feared his career would slide off a cliff before they reached another major championship.
Along the way, though, he had plenty to keep him occupied. Eleven major medals in nine seasons as a Manchester United FC player make him the sixth most-decorated player in Irish football history. That only 27 others have played in more games for United is another fact people overlook. In total, O'Shea appeared 393 times for the Red Devils. Nobby Stiles and David Beckham managed just one match more.
Yet they also played in, and in Stiles' case, won World Cups. O'Shea, meanwhile, watched summer after summer pass without Ireland gaining an invite to either of football's continental or global parties. And when he reached 76 national team outings and was told that he was the most capped Irish international never to have played in a major tournament, a sense of despair briefly took over.
And then Estonia happened. Ireland won 4-0 away from home in the UEFA EURO 2012 play-off first leg and O'Shea's persecution complex was over. "Without a doubt, I thought the chance had gone," said the Sunderland AFC defender. "Obviously, I just broke on to the scene for the 2002 World Cup and everyone is telling you you're going to get in the squad.
"I kind of knew inside myself that I had just been a little bit too late for that. But after that you just concentrate and think it will happen sooner or later. Next thing you know that campaign goes by and we've missed out. And then we were so close against France [in the 2010 World Cup play-offs]. Thankfully we are here now. To get to a major tournament is one of your goals as a kid – whatever country you're from."
Ireland's chances of success will be difficult, though. Croatia await in Group C on Sunday and then it is Spain, the holders, and Italy. Yet Italy is also part of the culture of this Irish team now that Giovanni Trapattoni is the man in charge. As 73-year-olds go, he is a remarkably young man.
"For him to still have that 'unfinished business' is incredible," added O'Shea, 42 years his coach's junior. "So far we have achieved just a small goal, but hopefully there is a bigger one to realise: getting out of the group. We know it is going to be tough, but the one thing we can take from the manager is the self-belief and discipline that he has had throughout his career that has brought him success."
If those words sound familiar then they should be because Trapattoni and Sir Alex Ferguson, O'Shea's previous manager at Old Trafford, are cut from similar cloth. "Their determination, their desire to work hard is so impressive," he said. "It is a simple and very effective thing, to work hard. They still have that hunger and desire. It has been amazing to see them not just sit back and enjoy it but to still want to get up early every morning and be a success."
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