Chris Young: The curious case of John O’Shea and why Sunderland must rely on him again

John O'Shea
John O'Shea
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Whatever the reason, fingers have been pointed in the direction of John O’Shea over the last five years.

Perhaps it’s because he’s been one of the few constants during Sunderland’s conveyor belt of players and managers.

Perhaps it’s because he arrived at the Stadium of Light in his 30s and no longer boasted that burst of pace to get him out of sticky situations.

Perhaps it’s because he’s been willing to regularly rise above the parapet and speak publicly when the club has been enduring the worst of its toils and all hope has seemed lost.

But too often, O’Shea has been a scapegoat among a section of supporters. He’s deserved better when he’s made more than 150 appearances in a red and white shirt for half the outlay of a Jack Rodwell.

He’s been one of those keeping the place afloat.

Ironically, it’s only when O’Shea has been out either through injury, suspension or team selection, that his value and worth has been recognised.

It happened at the start of last season when Dick Advocaat was keen to introduce a younger element into his back four and it has happened again 12 months later through Papy Djilobodji’s utter lack of concentration or organisational skills, despite Sunderland’s £8million investment.

Sunderland’s defence remained perilously fragile against West Brom, yet that’s a side-effect of conceding in every Premier League outing this season. At least with O’Shea restored to the starting XI, there was a rudder in waters which look increasingly perilous.

But while O’Shea is a necessary option for Sunderland in the short-term, can David Moyes really move the team forward with a 35-year-old in the heart of his back four?

It’s a catch-22 for Moyes. Sunderland could not afford to continue surrendering cheap goals with a defence devoid of leadership, yet every opposition manager will inevitably target a perceived lack of pace down the spine of the side if O’Shea continues there.

That’s why Younes Kaboul was such a blessing for Sam Allardyce in the second half of last season after the Frenchman embarked upon an injury-free run in the side.

Kaboul was a physical colossus for Sunderland, but just as importantly, shared O’Shea’s traits of organising and cajoling those around him. Without wishing to sound like a broken record, losing the ex-Spurs man was arguably the most damaging piece of transfer business done by Sunderland this summer.

But it’s a damning indictment of Sunderland’s recruitment policy that Kaboul has been the only viable alternative to O’Shea over the last three years, when the club has clearly required long-term adequate replacements for the Republic of Ireland international and fellow ex-Manchester United team-mate Wes Brown.

The only time that Sunderland really came close to landing one was when they spent weeks chasing then Swansea skipper Ashley Williams in the summer of 2014.

Williams is of the same mould as O’Shea. He was a massive figure off-the-field at the Liberty Stadium and the whole side seemed to pivot around his presence. That’s why even at 32, Everton were prepared to splash out £12million this summer.

The successful teams have those characters, particularly these days, when leadership is becoming a lost art.

There was a reason behind Allardyce offering an olive branch to John Terry during his all-so-brief tenure as England manager. For all Terry might be regarded as a reprehensible character by some of the public and even those in his own profession, he will shout, scream and bawl to secure victory for his team.

Did any players even open their mouths during that horrifying Euro 2016 eliminator to Iceland, which inadvertently propelled Allardyce away from the Stadium of Light?

Similarly, Moyes realised Sunderland were lacking big characters when he arrived on Wearside. Other than O’Shea, Lee Cattermole and probably Jermain Defoe, there aren’t many in that dressing room.

There was interest in Everton’s Phil Jagielka, yet when that would have involved a swap deal with Lamine Kone, it would have only opened up another set of problems.

There is no opportunity to recruit those kind of players over the next three months though.

Moyes will struggle to rely on O’Shea every week from now until January. Even physically, O’Shea is at the age where those niggling injuries are going to become more frequent.

But whether it’s in a back four or five – as could well become the case over upcoming weeks – Sunderland are yet again forced to rely on the old guard to bale them out.