Daley Blind is many things, most of them admirable. He is, we learned last season, a perfectly acceptable leftback and a willing, if limited, midfielder. Thus far this season we have learned that he is also a much better central defender than anybody had assumed, albeit one that can be exposed by any of the Premier League's bigger lumps. Wherever he plays, he passes with accuracy and imagination. He is useful. He is versatile. He is a utility player.
The term "utility player" sounds a little like an insult, but it is in fact one of football's finer compliments: in a world of highly specialised cutlery, of fish knives and asparagus forks and grapefruit spoons, there will always be a place for the humble and versatile spork. And while a few others in the squad have started to show some admirable versatility — Ashley Young able to play anywhere up and down the left; Marouane Fellaini a midfielder, a striker and a belligerent giraffe — we're comfortable in proclaiming Blind to be Manchester United's best utility player since John O'Shea.
But Daley Blind will never be John O'Shea.
This Saturday, O'Shea — now captain of Sunderland — returns to Old Trafford. If he's fit, and if he fits into Dick Advocaat's increasingly desperate attempts to forge some kind of coherent team, then he'll play against Manchester United, the club for which he made nearly 400 appearances, scored 15 goals, and won five league titles and a European Cup. Also the club for which, in the process of his career, he appeared in every outfield position and, for one glorious and sadly brief cameo, in goal.
Utility players aren't quite the supremely useful players they once were, thanks to the expansion of the subs bench, but if somebody can cover two or three positions without a drop in quality, then no squad's going to suffer for it. Blind's problem (if not being John O'Shea can be considered a problem, which obviously it must) is that he fits far too well into each of his jobs. Maybe it's his pretty face; maybe it's his rock-solid Ajax-schooled technique. Either way, whatever he tries to do, he looks right doing it. He doesn't just do a job: he actually looks like, variously, a decent (if slightly slow) left back; a clever and smooth (if slightly weak) centre half; and a competent (if slightly diffident) midfielder. He looks, in short, like whatever footballer he's asked to be.
Whereas O'Shea — and this is obviously a grotesquely superficial way to evaluate anybody, which we're justifying by the fact that we are all grotesquely superficial creatures — always looked, essentially, to be filling in. A high-level manifestation of that friend you have who is happy to turn up to five-a-side if you're a player down, and happy to play wherever.
At the back? No worries. Oh, no need to thank me, I didn't have any plans this evening anyway. And then at the end of the game, when he's done quite well in whatever positions he'd been dropped into, then it's handshakes all round. Good fun. Enjoyed that. Give me a shout if you're short next week.
As we say, horribly unfair. John O'Shea was a persistent presence at a football team who were consistently among the best in the world, and he was there on merit. So he must have been both a fine athlete and an extraordinary footballer. Yet apart from the brief early period where he threatened to turn into a terrifying leftback, an urge he thankfully quashed, he was always filling in. Scoring winners at Liverpool because he had nothing better to do. Shanking shots against West Ham because he was just lending a hand. Not by choice or by preference but by the unwritten, hardwired rules of his very existence.
It's just how he's made. Go down to a cellular level, and John O'Shea doesn't have red blood cells, white blood cells, mitochondria, haemoglobin and all the other biological bits and bobs that make up a human body. He is composed of a million million identical and interchangeable cells, each doing whatever needs to be done, and each doing it with admirable and surprising competence. All of his internal organs are the same colour and shape, yet each is doing a different job. All of his teeth are the same size, but some tear, some grind, and some just hang around vaguely hurting in a way that's distracting, yet not quite worth taking to the dentist.
Which is why Daley Blind, who will be a very useful footballer for however many seasons he remains at the club and who will hopefully win silverware in similarly ridiculous amounts, will never be John O'Shea. You wouldn't throw him the gloves if the keeper gets sent off, and you wouldn't give him a ring if your sink was blocked. Blind can do several things, pretty well; John O'Shea, back in his prime, could do anything.
Those days are gone: now he's very much a central defender, and by no means a fixture in Sunderland's team. But his return to Old Trafford this weekend affords another opportunity to remember just how special he was. He may not have been anybody's favourite player, and he may not have been a first-team fixture for most of his United career, but he was something more, something greater. He was the man the Swiss Army would call when they didn't know what to do. He was the utility player's utility player. He was the spork's spork.