Paul O’Shaughnessy is a remarkable figure within the NSW Football community and has made global headlines after playing a heroic role in restraining Sydney knife attacker Mert Ney last week.
Chris Curulli caught up with the former professional footballer for an in-depth account of his story and Tuesday afternoon’s surreal experience.
Paul O’Shaughnessy’s life is one that has taken many unexpected twists and turns.
From his prodigious rise as promising young footballer with Bury FC to an unexpected release which left him yearning for a fresh start in Australia, the 37-year-old has endured more than his fair share of unwelcome surprises.
Not to mention last week’s incident…
Tuesday the 13th of August was just another ordinary day for Paul and his colleagues Lee Cuthbert, Alex Roberts and brother Luke O’Shaughnessy, who were hard at work in the fourth-story office of their Sydney recruitment agency.
At around 2pm Luke peered outside his window to a take in what was a scene of uncertainty and chaos; spotting a man wielding a knife on what appeared to be a rampage.
As is an unfortunate reality due to recent acts of terror around the globe and the current knife crime epidemic in the O’Shaughnessy’s native UK, the boys had discussed how they would respond to this scenario just a few months earlier.
And as soon as they were made aware of the nightmare unfolding at their doorstep, there was no hesitation.
The four workmates piled into their elevator, before setting off after the man.
There were already some heroes at the scene in pursuit of the assailant, including lawyer John Bamford who was harnessing only a cafe chair as protection.
Lee and Alex set off in the direction that the man had supposedly fled, whilst Paul and Luke decided to follow a ghastly trail of blood.
The brothers eventually caught up with Ney, and bravely brought his frenzy to a halt.
“My brother is a Thai boxer, and I’m a physical guy so our first instinct was to help,” O’Shaughnessy recalled.
“We just thought about other people; didn’t think about ourselves.
“Luke looked out his window and said ‘there’s a guy with a knife! We’ve got to go Paul, we’ve got to go!’
“We had a hypothetical conversation three months ago and agreed that if we were ever in a situation like that, we would help.
“There were all these flashes, thinking about whether he had a gun, or explosives on him, but I didn’t worry about my own safety.
“I did have the thought ‘are we going to get out of this?’ as I was running over there, but I just thought we had to help where we could.
“I looked right in his eyes…and that was quite harrowing.”
One of Bury’s own
Paul is a larger-than-life individual who is evidently willing to prioritise the safety of others above his own.
He believes many aspects of his character were shaped as a teenager over in the UK, where he grew up in the town of Bury, Greater Manchester.
Having been involved in Manchester City’s youth teams, it was always O’Shaughnessy’s dream to become a professional footballer.
And he was granted a priceless opportunity to be just that by the English FA’s Youth Training Scheme (YTS), which was historically the first step towards stardom for the majority of England’s ‘Golden Generation.’
Compounding O’Shaughnessy’s excitement, the offer received was from his home-town club Bury FC.
As Paul explains, two years of apprentice-like service at the club’s training ground was to eventually earn him his first professional contract.
“In that time I played for the youth team, but also contributed to all of the jobs that needed to be done for the professional players: cleaning their boots, putting the nets up and making them teas and coffees, while also trying to do my best at training every day to ultimately earn that contract.
“They were some of best years of my life.
“Being in a professional footballing routine and lifestyle, it does not get much better than that.
“Around 1 in 10 players used to earn a professional contract from the YTS and I was fortunate enough to turn pro and play for my home-town club.
“My first ever game, we were playing Chesterfield. I came on as a sub when we were 1-0 down, and we managed to win the game 2-1.
“I contributed to one of the goals and all it sort of kicked on from there, really.”
A world turned upside down
Being one of the few local lads in the Bury squad, the hard-tackling midfielder soon endeared himself as a fan favourite.
He went on to make over fifty first-team appearances from his debut in 1999, representing the club in the fourth, third and second tier of English football.
But as a 24-year-old approaching the prime of his career with considerable experience under his belt, O’Shaughnessy faced the unthinkable.
“It was around Christmas-time that our manager Andy Preece, who really valued me as a player, fell out with the club and left,” he recalled.
“Graham Barrow, who was the assistant manager, took over and brought in some older pros to stabilise the ship a little bit.
“We still got on well, and he said ‘don’t worry, you’ll get a new contract’.
“So I went and got a mortgage based on the expectation that I would get a contract.
“I played the last three games of the season, including a win against Cambridge at home where I was man of the match.
“I really didn’t think I’d hear the words ‘unfortunately you’re not going to get a contract’.
“But I did, and it was earth-shattering.
“I felt like in that moment of time my career had been taken away from me before it could fully flourish.
“It was a tough blow to swallow; I carried that pain for over a decade”
Compounding Paul’s shock, his grandfather Terry was also dismissed from his role within the club due to “budget restraints.”
Meeting Fergie and Co.
As he assessed his future options, Paul decided to ward off a couple of offers from rival and regional clubs to remain in Bury.
He made the step down to non-league level, joining Radcliffe Borough.
It was during this period that one the highlights of O’Shaughnessy’s entire footballing career emerged.
Due to a chance connection between legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the son of Radcliffe owner Bernard Manning, a famous Mancunian comedian, the two clubs took to the pitch in a pre-season friendly.
O’Shaughnessy travelled to the Red Devils’ Carrington training ground to lock horns with an outfit boasting the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs, Smith and Ferdinand.
“It was unbelievable,” he reflected.
“We got beaten 7-0 but it was a surreal experience, and I played against all of these players I looked up to as a United fan.
“That game was a dream come true.
“For that experience alone, I’m glad I made that decision.
Life beyond football
Heartbroken by a sudden release from the only club he ever wished to represent, O’Shaughnessy decided to expand his aspirations beyond life as a footballer.
However the sport was all he had ever known, and while suffering ongoing debt from his recent mortgage, the transition to working life was far from straightforward.
“I decided that with a mortgage and bills to pay, rather than going on trials that might not lead to anything, my heart was with Bury.
“After that a few things happened to me personally, I fell into a pretty dark place and made a few decisions based on being very committed to Bury and it had not gone anywhere.
“I pressed the self-destruct button.
“It took a good couple of years for me to figure out what I was going to be, but nothing could compare (to being a footballer).
Paul stumbled across a career in recruitment, which he has pursued to this day.
“I went into sales and eventually got myself into recruitment over there which was a bit of a saving grace for me.
“I quite enjoyed that same team dynamic as football, although it still didn’t compare.
“I had to leave Bury because not only had my habitual state of drinking and doing things that I regret left me in a mess, I wanted to start afresh.”
Moving Down Under
And start afresh Paul did, as he traded Manchester for Manly.
Sydney had long been on O’Shaughnessy’s radar, as his uncle Steven (who was a professional cricketer for Lancashire) regularly travelled down under.
After watching the postcards showcasing Sydney stack up on his nan’s mantlepiece, Paul decided the time was right to take the plunge and move to the other side of the world.
He settled in Sydney’s north and connected with a group of fellow British ex-pats playing local football for North Sydney.
There he enjoyed a couple of successful seasons, taking home the Premier League title and lifting the KDSA Cup.
“I’d always had a draw to Australia so I decided to take a job over here; I was already planning to come over for a year or two.
“You soon realise what an amazing city it is, so I decided to stay out here and play for local teams because with my job I could not commit and travel to the level required at a higher level.”
A footballing rebirth with Dunbar Rovers FC
After trading Manly for Balmain in Sydney’s inner west, O’Shaughnessy was introduced to Dunbar Rovers Football Club.
He represented the club from 2014 to 2016 and was an instrumental member of the squad who monumentally climbed the leagues from the local ESFA Premier League to the National Premier Leagues Men’s 3 competition.
In his maiden season with the club, Paul was in the side who captured the prestigious Football NSW Champion of Champions tournament for the second time in the club’s history.
The following season Dunbar were granted entry to the NSW State League, which they convincedly won to earn promotion to the newly-formed third tier of NSW football.
O’Shaughnessy, or ‘Shauny’ as he is affectionately known around Dunbar, was immediately impressed by the club’s vision and organisation.
“With no disrespect to North Sydney, Dunbar were a level up in terms of their commitment and I discovered how much I missed that.
“For an amateur club, everything was done professionally, and I loved it.
“We had a good young manager in Will Cullen and had some great success.
“2014 was a special year, being a part of that group.
“They are lads that I’ll always hold in high regard; to win the league and the Champions of Champions, is no easy feat; I can tell you that coming from a professional background.
“I respect everyone else that has won that tough competition.”
Dunbar are a remarkable club on many levels.
Heading into 2019, they were the only non -League club in the country to employ a ‘fee-free football’ policy for youth players.
Their engagement with the community on social media and through their annual Business of Football Lunch (of which Paul is a regular attendee), sees them stand out from the pack.
As Paul discussed, this outcome is the result of a driven club committee led by Peter Hennessy and Matt Delves who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to develop Dunbar into the club it is today.
“Pete and Matt had this vision of taking the club to the NPL or at least State League, which we were successful in achieving,” O’Shaughnessy recalled.
“Those two guys are the most passionate people that you are going to meet in football.
“Even when I was playing professionally, I have never met two more dedicated individuals.
“What I am most proud about is that Dunbar challenge the status quo football model in Australia, charging no fees for football: the way it should be.
“They have inspired everyone.”
After enjoying a season of consolidation in the National Premier Leagues NSW 3 competition, O’Shaughnessy decided to hang up his boots at the age of 35.
Or so he thought…
Old dreams, but a new project at Forest Killarney FC
Moving back to Sydney’s Northern Beaches six months ago, O’Shaughnessy had no intentions of returning to football in a playing capacity.
However as he explored his new Killarney Heights community, a chance encounter with Forest Killarney FC saw him embark on one final footballing endeavour.
“I was walking around Melwood Oval with my dog and had no interest of going back to football after retiring,” Paul recalled.
“But I liked the club (Forest Killarney FC) and facilities; it has a great image about it.
“I kept seeing the AL/1’s training and thought ‘who’s that team?’
“So I called up the club and decided to join right as the season started.”
Forest Killarney, a member of the Manly Warringah Football Association, are an impressive grassroots club in their own right.
Last weekend, eight of their Mixed Junior sides took part in their respective Grand Finals.
They were also recently awarded the association’s Junior Club of the Year accolade for 2019.
The future is undoubtedly bright for the club, with their Under 18’s side, coached by the club’s Technical Director Billy Keir, recently taking home the Football NSW State Cup, as well as their local MWFA League and Grand Final titles.
O’Shaughnessy is a member of their first-grade side, who ply their trade in the AL/1 competition, the second tier of Manly Warringah amateur football.
Coached by Michael Vescio and the club’s senior coaching team including Joe Santarosa, Forest finished in fifth position last campaign, just shy of a promotion playoff position.
But the prospect of progressing with a club who already boast excellent facilities and structures has re-lit the flame for O’Shaughnessy.
“Mick (Vescio) is a good footballing man and I believe that next season with the right focus in pre-season we will definitely be favourites to go up,” he anticipates.
“My ultimate goal, and vision working with Guisseppe Guerrero (FKFC’s Club President), is to hopefully in the long run go on a similar journey to what Dunbar Rovers have done and take this club into NPL.
“I know what it takes, and I do believe that Forest Killarney as a club are a sleeping giant.
“There’s a long way to go, with a lot of hard work involved, but it’s not going to take just one person, player or coach; as I experienced with Dunbar, it is a community effort.”
“There is already some local pride involved.
“It has given me a similar feeling to when I played at Bury; when it is your local club it means more.
“Having such a connection to the club, it is so much more fulfilling.”
O’Shaughnessy’s colleague Lee Cuthbert, who was alongside him in pursuit of Mert Ney, is a speedy winger who plays in the AL/1’s competition for Harbord Seasiders United.
HSU finished their season in 2nd position, earning promotion to a newly-expanded 12 team MWFA Premier League competition for 2020.
Returning to Tuesday, the spur of the moment actions from Paul and his mates have attracted global media attention and plaudits.
Their “brave actions” were commended by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, while social media spread viral, now iconic footage of Ney being restrained by a milk crate.
Despite the praise being heaped on the group, O’Shaughnessy is insistently playing down the hero tag.
“The thing I’m most proud about at this stage is the fact that we ran into danger for the Australian public and I’m really pleased that no one else was a casualty.
“There have been a lot of people praising our bravery and using the word heroism, but in our eyes we’re definitely not heroes.
“Kudos to the people on the scene who immediately responded.
“They were the real heroes, and we were just really happy that we could get there and help detain him.
“We’re just ready to get on with our work, and just look back and be proud about what we did.”
Paul is grateful for those who supported him through his struggles, allowing him to become the man he is today.
“Without my family back home, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“If it wasn’t for their love and support through some very dark and stormy waters, I wouldn’t have made it to Australia.
“And without my wife’s support since arriving in Australia I wouldn’t be the strong dedicated and disciplined man I am today, having reached one of my biggest achievements of being three and a half years completely sober and enjoying my life as a dedicated father, husband, business owner and community man.
He bears a stirring message for anybody who may be enduring tough times themselves.
“You do need people’s support but to make true change, you have to make it yourself and keep yourself accountable for it.
“Anyone who is going through a dark time, stick with it and trust the process of coming out the other side, speak up and get support.
“You will come out the other side and you’ll feeling stronger than you ever were before.”
In the future, O’Shaughnessy foresees a prolonged involvement in football at the grassroots level.
“I’ve always envisioned that at some point I would get involved in the football community over here, and I’m sure I will do more over time,” he said.
“I do feel 100% that I could help younger players with their development, especially having come out of a darker place myself.
“Having had that kick in the teeth, I do feel like I have something to offer; whether it’s around football, the community, being an advisor, or just being somebody to have a chat to.
“Whether it’s now or in a few years, I will try and take this to the local level.
“There are so many little things that could make a big difference.”
By Football NSW Reporter Chris Curulli (Twitter handle @ChrisCurulli)