Euro snub the way forward for Given
SHAY GIVEN could never be described, in the words Brian Clough infamously used about Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, as "a clown" yet he seems strangely drawn towards football's equivalent of the circus.
It took him 12 years and over 350 games to escape from the Big Top of the Toon as he perfected his perplexed look, behind a Newcastle defence that never saw a trickle which it couldn't turn into a flood.
At least at St James' Park though, there was hope for the future -- that day when a stable club would take a punt on one of the league's most consistent goalkeepers and give him the opportunity to prove that he belonged among the elite.
It's now 18 months since Manchester City gave him that chance, however, and his future has never looked more bleak.
If he's lucky, before Ireland host Russia next month, Given will have tomorrow night's game against Andorra, a League Cup match with West Brom and, maybe, in the Europa League against Red Bull Salzburg and Juventus to prepare for a game that could set Ireland towards winning the group.
If he is unlucky, however, he'll face Andorra -- when the warm-up should be just about the greatest of his exertions -- and reserve games against West Ham, Arsenal, West Brom and Blackpool, presuming that City are happy to let him play.
While Robbie Keane's lack of game-time appeared to manifest itself in Yerevan with a slice and a scuff of relatively straight-forward opportunities, there was little sign that Given was similarly afflicted.
But while it's one thing to ask goalkeepers to be at their best when not being involved during one game, it's quite another to believe they can reach their usual sharpness without a decent competitive match for a month.
There was more than Given's career on the line when he suffered a punctured bowel in a clash with Marlon Harewood -- with injuries likened to that of a car crash victim -- yet, having recovered, it seems the three games he missed towards the end of last season may have a longer lasting effect on his career.
Had that dislocated shoulder not happened, Given would have been in possession of the goalkeeper's shirt when Joe Hart returned and had a head-start on the man who spent last season on loan at Birmingham.
From an Irish perspective, it's easy to be cynical and believe the subsequent battle for the goalkeeper's jersey was swung simply because one of those involved was English, at a club who are desperate to maintain the image of still being in touch with their supporters, despite spending over one third of a billion on players in two years.
Yet, in the few games that Hart started since the start of the season, he has ticked every box put against his name.
Rescue a point under a barrage of attacks? Check, against Tottenham. Make a save at a crucial time when having nothing else to do all game? Check, against Liverpool. Be a rare, calming presence in an England team? Check, against Bulgaria. Not bad for a 24-year-old who started his career with 54 games at Shrewsbury.
There's nothing to suggest that Given couldn't have performed equally as well, but the bottom line is that Roberto Mancini has made his decision and is under no obligation to keep his second choice goalkeeper fit for international service, a reality which, of all his players, should be of greatest worry to Giovanni Trapattoni.
As somebody who trains with him every day, Given is the perfect judge of how good Hart is, but, unless he can spot an obvious chink in his armour, there should be no reason why Given would want to stay.
Hanging around in case Hart gets injured is one rationale, but for a position that regularly requires putting hands and head in where more sane individuals wouldn't put their feet, goalkeepers often have remarkable longevity.
Instead, Given might be better served by not seeking to play in Europe and thus avoid being cup-tied if another English, or European, club suddenly finds itself in need of a safe pair of hands. At the moment, it's probably less of a risk to hope Arsene Wenger loses faith in Manuel Almunia than to hope Hart picks up an injury.
Refusing to play a game certainly doesn't seem to be his style, but the man who slapped in a transfer request 10 years ago at Newcastle, when he was overlooked in favour of Steve Harper, hasn't come this far by being afraid to fight his corner. The danger for him, and for Ireland, is that he will probably have several months of solitude on the substitutes bench to weigh up his options.