The seats are red and white. The walls are lined with photographs and memorabilia from Sunderland's past, right back to the 1950s signs from Roker Park. Quinn's Bar, where John O'Shea has arranged to meet, is basically a museum that serves pints. Through the Stadium of Light's main entrance, up the flight of stairs and along the corridor where an entire wall is devoted to Niall Quinn. "I learned my trade at Arsenal, I became a footballer at Manchester City," it says before the entrance. "But Sunderland got under my skin."
O'Shea has been part of the club only 10 months, still learning about his new employers in many ways. Early in the season, when the results were bad and the crowd mutinous, he was taken aback sometimes by the shift in dynamics from his previous club, Manchester United. "It was an eye-opener. I'd never had a change of manager in my entire career. Then a few months in, Steve Bruce had gone. You're thinking: 'Who's going to come in now?' and you see that anxiousness running through the staff and the players. A bit of guilt, too, perhaps, because the manager has brought you in."
It was all very new for someone who had spent the previous 13 years at Old Trafford. O'Shea made more than 400 appearances for Sir Alex Ferguson's team and has five league winner's medals, one European Cup, one FA Cup and three League Cups to show for it. This weekend, when he faces his old club for the first time, will be one of the few times in his career he has gone into the final match of the season with little hinging on it for his own team. For United, the title is at stake.
Knowing what he does about the club, O'Shea is surprised it has even reached this stage given that Ferguson's team had an eight-point lead over Manchester City a month ago. "You would have expected, with all their experience, they would have managed to keep that advantage so close to the end of the season."
First, though, he wants to tackle what Roberto Mancini has said about Sunday's fixture being an "easy" win for United. "Believe me, the two times City have played against us this season, they knew it wasn't an easy game. We've taken four points off them, and it should have been six if we think about the game at their place [a 3-3 draw in which Sunderland led 3-1]."
His suspicion is that City's manager is saying it purely to "fire us up" but Martin O'Neill has been irritated by the insinuation – "He had obviously forgotten to check the fixtures list properly," Sunderland's manager said of Mancini last week – and O'Shea is inclined to agree. "I think he is starting to enjoy his psychological games but, as the gaffer said, to call the integrity of the Premier League into question is disappointing. He's going for the title and he's going to try certain things. But he doesn't need to do that."
O'Shea speaks as one of the old guard, now 31 and one of the senior players leading the Republic of Ireland into next month's European Championship. Leaving Old Trafford, by his own admission, was always going to be difficult when, for the most part, there is usually one place to go: down. Yet it was becoming clear after the signings of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, with Rafael and Fábio da Silva also in the equation, that first-team chances would be increasingly sparse. "It was hard, but I've always been level-headed and I know what happens in football. The manager asked to see me and told me he was thinking of different things, with the younger lads coming through and different signings being made. I'd always known it could happen one day and we left on good terms."
What has happened since has demonstrated to him the difference, in terms of stability, between United and many of the clubs beneath them. O'Shea's season began badly, damaging his hamstring in pre-season, and when he was fit enough to go into the team they were playing badly and heading towards the point where the fans turned on Bruce. "It was just hugely frustrating for me trying to make an impact at a new club, and with results not going well. It's such a passionate area and losing to Newcastle so early in the season didn't help."
By the time O'Neill replaced Bruce the team were fifth from bottom, with three wins from their opening 13 matches, and there was the serious possibility that O'Shea had swapped Champions League football for a relegation battle. Instead, O'Neill has brought a new sense of assurance. "I'd heard from other players who had worked with him how passionate he was and how motivational he could be," O'Shea says, "but you also quickly learn how intelligent he is too. All these things are rolled into one. There's an intelligence behind what he does and a psychology behind it, what he says to players at certain times. He's just got this special knack of knowing how to get the best out of players."
They are 11th now and, according to O'Shea, frustrated not to be higher going into Sunday's match. It will be a strange experience, he says. On the one hand, he still has enormous affection for his old club. On the other, he refers to the performance of Phil Neville and Darron Gibson in Everton's 4-4 draw at Old Trafford as evidence of how Ferguson's former players always want to prove a point when they face their old club. "First and foremost, you want to do well for yourself and your own team," he says. "It could be a huge game for United, depending on how City do, but we want to finish with a win for our fans and we want to try to get in the top 10."
The message is clear: it won't be easy for United, whatever Mancini says.
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