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Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
O'Shea stands tall
Manchester United's John O'Shea turns inside Derby County's Chris Riggott
O'Shea made massive strides last season

In case you hadn't heard, Rio Ferdinand has signed for Manchester United.

The Old Trafford faithful can finally breathe a sigh of relief that come the start of the new Premiership season, their side will have a genuinely well-equipped, promising centre-half.

The soft centre of the most talked-about defence will no longer resemble a caramel cream.

Instead, we can expect Ferdinand to make the United rearguard as difficult to get through as Uncle Joe's Mint Balls.

The question on most people's lips now is who will partner the 30m man?

Sir Alex Ferguson's much-stated admiration for the veteran Laurent Blanc, who has signed a new one-year deal, makes the 36-year-old Frenchman a strong favourite for the supporting role.

Then there is Wes Brown, a close pal of Rio's and England team-mate.

Brown, still only 22, has seen the promising start to his Old Trafford career derailed by a series of unfortunate injuries coupled with a loss in confidence brought on by some costly mistakes.

England and Manchester United defender Wes Brown
Brown tipped to partner Ferdinand

But the chance to forge a defensive alliance with Ferdinand - which could also be transferred on to the international stage - may see Brown fulfil his own unquestionable potential.

And given the success of the Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole partnership in United's attack, Ferguson could try the friends formula once again.

Yet in the background looms a towering 6ft 3in, 21-year-old Irishman by the name of John O'Shea.

O'Shea, a former Bohemians schoolboy, signed professional terms with United in August 1998 after starring in Ireland's Under-16 European Championship winning side.

He made his first-team debut just over a year later in a Worthington Cup defeat to Aston Villa.

A loan spell to United's feeder club Royal Antwerp in Belgium then followed in the 2000/01 season before Ferguson returned O'Shea to the Old Trafford fold last season.

The big central defender has yet to emerge from the shadows of his more illustrious team-mates, but Ferguson has predicted great things for the player.

"The boy has come on well," the United manager said of his charge.

"He has good composure and he is quick. He's a big lad and is improving all the time.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson
Ferguson is pleased with O'Shea's progress

"He played against the likes of Jan Koller and Tomasz Radzinski at Anderlecht in Belgium and they didn't get a kick, so he has the ability all right.

"He just needs maturity."

When United's defence was close to breaking point last December with Blanc, Brown and Johnsen all out injured, O'Shea answered Ferguson's call.

He made an impressive Premiership debut against West Ham despite the result - a 1-0 home defeat.

O'Shea followed up his fine display with another commanding performance against Derby, a game which United won 5-0.

What was panning out to be a rare, yet ideal opportunity to establish a foothold in the first team ended rather unluckily against Middlesbrough where he picked up a groin strain.

His promotion to United's elite XI had been brief as were his first-team appearances thereafter, but the fleeting glimpses of his talent just before Christmas 2001 suggest a bright future.

O'Shea even entered the Republic of Ireland's pre-World Cup fray, gaining his first full international cap as a substitute in a friendly against Croatia last August.

So once Ferguson has finished with his initial tinkering and the various partnerships have been tried and test, O'Shea may just inch ahead of his rivals and line up alongside Ferdinand.

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