For UEFA European Under-17 Championship tournament ambassador John O'Shea, winning this competition with the Republic of Ireland in 1998 paved the way for a glittering career.
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“Getting the chance to lead out your country at a major tournament is the pinnacle. If you’d told me at 17 years of age that I’d end up doing that, it would have been hard to believe. But that’s where the effort and dedication pays off – with a bit of luck along the way.”
That said, you would think 17-year-old John O’Shea had reasonable hopes for his career prospects on 8 May 1998, when he was part of the Republic of Ireland team that unexpectedly won the UEFA European Under-16 Championship (the precursor to this tournament). On their way to the final they topped a group that included Spain – with a guy called Iker Casillas in goal – before beating Denmark and Portugal in the quarter and semi-finals respectively. Then it was the small matter of Italy in the final, who were duly dispatched 2-1.
That goal against Italy was the only one to hit the back of Ireland’s net throughout the tournament. Presumably, O’Shea is taking the credit for such a mean defence? “Exactly. Though I think Joe Murphy in goal might have something to say about that. Everyone knew their jobs – and we had plenty of speed to counterattack with.”
And what was it like to lift the cup? “Incredible. And I think that’s down to realising what you’ve been part of. We were the first underage Irish team – well, the first Irish team at any level – to win a tournament. When you think of the elite teams of Europe that we faced, to have that success and be part of that team was amazing. The older you get, the more you realise how important it was.”
O’Shea, 38, is the ambassador for this tournament. It’s the sort of role you get asked to fill when you’ve won 118 caps for your country, in recognition of the fact that you have climbed the summit – and have a few tales to tell as a result.
O’Shea’s one about marking his 100th cap by scoring a late equaliser in a UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier against Germany isn’t bad. “It would have been great just to score on my 100th cap, but the fact that it was a point away from home against the world champions, last minute, getting a nice finish past Manuel Neuer ... it really mattered. Goals for my country didn’t come around too often so it was a special moment.”
Not only did the 1998 competition give O’Shea the impetus to progress through the ranks for Ireland, it was also the catalyst for Manchester United FC to cement their interest in the young defender. “I was very close to going to Celtic and that’s probably where I was headed until this tournament. But obviously I caught Manchester United’s attention, a few phone calls were made, they did some background checks and thankfully I passed.”
O’Shea believes that his transition from Waterford Bohemians FC to one of the biggest clubs in the world was eased by the experience he gained during that U16 tournament. “It gave me a lot more self-confidence, as well as the team ethic that manager Brian Kerr instilled in us as a squad.”
O’Shea’s international career blossomed as he became an established member of the United squad, with the play-off win against Estonia to qualify for UEFA EURO 2012 another highlight. “We’d come unstuck in a few play-off games before that so to finally do it was amazing.”
That is exactly what the boys turning out for Ireland in this tournament will be targeting – and they could do worse than turn to the ambassador for advice. “I played with so many players at that age who had all the talent but didn’t apply it properly; they thought things were going to come to them. That’s something that was drilled into me at that age: the work ethic and the quality you need. If you keep practising and maintain your belief, it might happen for you one day. It’s a case of listening to the right people.”
In the short term, the passionate backing of the home fans should give the Irish players the belief they need to seize the moment. “The lengths that the fans go to to support us never ceases to amaze me. They’ve got a tradition of having a great time but also being so respectful. Most importantly, the support they give the team makes you want to go out there and do well for your country. Hopefully, playing at home, with the fantastic support I know they’ll get down in Waterford and in Dublin, maybe I’ll get the chance to present Ireland with the trophy.”
This article appears in the European Under-17 Championship final tournament programme