Three players: Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea. Great players today but each has suffered at Manchester United. Evra, taken off at half-time on début, did not have the most auspicious start. It was not uncommon to hear United fans dub Fletcher “Fergie’s son,” based on the notion that the Scot played only because of the land of his birth. And O’Shea…well, he’s John O’Shea.
But the effort put into their respective careers has seen each transformed from flops to favourites. So much so that Patty, Fletch and Sheasy can lead United to glory, confident in their status as fans’ favourites.
Patrice Latyr Evra, born 15th of May 1981, started his football career at a small French club, CO Les Ulis. At 16, accepted into the academy, the Dakar-born defender joined Paris Saint-Germain before moving to Italian club Marsala for his first professional contract. After a successful start to his career, including time at Monza in Serie B and then Nice, Evra signed for AS Monaco, following a switch from left-wing to left-back.
Four years later and Evra signed for United, with Liverpool, Arsenal and Inter Milan reportedly interested. It was the start of Evra’s rise to the pinacle of world football.
Evra’s journey wasn’t smooth sailing though. Substituted at half-time on début in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City, many felt incumbent full-back Gabriel Heinze had little concern in keeping Evra at bay.
Nevertheless, the Frenchman pushed through his difficulties and soon became an important part of the team. He scored his first Premier League goal against Everton in 2006. By 2008, Evra was an essential part of United’s defence.
Over the years Evra has grown on United fans due to his unwavering loyalty to the club and his effusive personality – Evra one part of a comedy trio with Ji-Sung Park and Carlos Tevez. Evra’s altercation with Chelsea ground staff, together with outstanding performances on the pitch, probably didn’t hurt either.
While fans could never accuse Evra of being ‘Fergie’s Son’ that was the charge laid at Fletcher’s door early in his career. Presumably because that was the only explanation for his place in the team? But nine years on, and thousands of disrespectful comments later, Darren Fletcher is now seen as a midfielder in the world-class bracket. United’s world-class midfielder.
But Fletcher has always divided opinion. Some supporters viewed the Dalkeith-born midfielder as little more than decent backup. Others pushed the merits of local talent and not an import.
Fletcher began his career as a much-vaunted creative midfielder. Club insiders had earmarked the Scot for Beckham’s right-wing slot.
“Ferguson is convinced that in teenage prodigy Darren Fletcher, he has a youngster who will make a sensational impact when he breaks into the first-team. The 16-year-old Scot, already rated Beckham’s understudy, is so integral to Ferguson’s future plans that the manager took the lad into his own home to convince him to move to Old Trafford,” was ESPN’s analysis in 2000.
But Fletcher’s first few seasons at Old Trafford, hampered by serious injury, slowed the player’s development into the central midfielder Ferguson relies upon today. Fletcher did not convince everybody – famously the Scot was singled out by Roy Keane for public criticism.
“I can’t understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher,” the Irishman reportedly said.
Fletcher’s progress stalled, with Ferguson’s preferred midfield of Cristian Ronaldo, Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs blocking his path to a regular game. The arrival of Owen Hargreaves and Anderson made Fletcher’s departure seem all but inevitable. There were even rumors that Fletcher considered leave the club.
In many ways 2009 was a watershed in Fletcher’s career. The Scot fought his way back into the first team picture, with a string of stellar performances. More to the point, Ferguson illustrated Fletcher’s increasing importance to the team by leaving the midfielder out of Carling and FA Cup games.
The Scot’s red card against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final may have devastated Fletcher personally but United’s performance in the final highlighted only served to highlight his newfound importance to the team.
But perhaps the highest praise came from former-Liverpool legend Graeme Souness.
“I believe he will be, arguably, United’s most important player for the next seven years,” claimed the 54-cap Scot.
It has been a different path for John O’Shea to first team success. Possibly United’s most versatile player, O’Shea has been through the ups and downs of playing for the world’s greatest club since joined at 17. Making his début in 1999, after loan spells at Bournemouth and Belgian side Royal Antwerp, O’Shea benefited from his versatility to force his way into the first team squad.
But the Irishman’s biggest stroke of luck came in 2004 when Rio Ferdinand, suspended for missing a mandatory drugs test, handed O’Shea a home in central defence. O’Shea helped United triumph in that season’s FA Cup Final.
However, poor form the following year led to speculation that O’Shea would leave the club, linked as he was with a move to Newcastle United and Liverpool. Injuries to Gary Neville in 2006 offered the defender further opportunities in the first team but he failed to impress and was another player condemned by Roy Keane in the now infamous MUTV outburst.
But just as O’Shea’s United future looked dire, the Waterford-born player managed to win his way into supporters’ hearts with a solid performance against Tottenham Hotspur – in goal - following Edwin van der Sar’s injury. Then O’Shea scored an added-time winner against Liverpool at Anfield to cement his status. During the 2008 season, O’Shea even played as an emergency striker giving the Irishman the unique distinction of having played in every position for the team.
Last season O’Shea was a key player for United, scoring against Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final first leg. He finished the final as one of United’s better players.
O’Shea’s status as first choice right-back has continued, even captaining the side against Birmingham City this term. At Stoke City O’Shea played – and scored in – his 350th appearance for the club. A remarkable achievement for the man so few had believed in.
“I could play John anywhere. He has great passing awareness, two good feet, he is quick, and he is balanced. He’s athletic, big and gets around well,” is Sir Alex Ferguson’s summary of the player’s newfound importance to the team.
While some still criticise O’Shea for being mediocre, he is now a vital part of the United squad. This is unlikely to change, after all how many players can Sir Alex trust in almost any position?
Three different players: Evra, Fletcher and O’Shea. Each has been subject to criticism from fans. Each has suffered on the road to stardom. But now United can boast the world’s finest left back, a world-class midfielder and John O’Shea … well he’s pretty awesome too.