Sunday 11 December 2016

Roy Keane gets all the credit, but one moment of magic from Shay Given secure qualification for 2002 World Cup

Iran clash was Given's finest hour in a vast catalogue of excellence over incredible 20-year international career

Published 29/07/2016 | 02:30

Shay Given makes a save from Iran's Ali Karimi against in 2001
Shay Given makes a save from Iran's Ali Karimi against in 2001
Shay Given raises a glass in celebration on the flight home from Iran where Ireland qualified for the 2002 World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

It was a private moment in a public place and proof, were its evidence not superfluous to most, that beneath the cheerful exterior, this son of Tir Chonaill had a fire that burned as fiercely as any other.

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September, 2000 and journalists, supporters and players are kicking their heels at a baggage carousel in Amsterdam airport.

Shay Given is just kicking the carousel.

Distraught after momentarily slipping to third in the pecking order behind Dean Kiely and Alan Kelly, Given vowed to himself that he would regain the Irish number one slot first earned against Russia in a friendly four years earlier.

He would do so and remain virtually immoveable for more than a decade. And, for much of that time, he would prove impassable between the sticks, too.

While many observers credit Roy Keane with disproportionate influence during Ireland's subsequent qualification for a first World Cup in eight years, those of us in Tehran who watched Iran's late second leg winner in the 2-1 aggregate defeat immediately thought of Given's incredible one-on-one defiance of Ali Karimi four days earlier.

Questionable

Without it, Iran's late goal would have sent them, not Ireland, through to that World Cup. Given would have to wait another decade to feature in a major championship for Ireland but, cruelly, his inability to play through injury and questionable management from Giovanni Trapattoni dampened his return to the big stage.

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Always central to Ireland's international endeavours, he was a consistent feature amongst the landscape of the Premier League, although it remains a curiosity that his enduring status as one of Europe's best netminders never earned him the kudos it seemed to deserve at club level.

After stunning service with Sunderland in their promotion campaign of 1996, he established himself as a model of consistency for a Newcastle United who would perennially parade themselves as precisely the opposite.

Despite being regularly coveted by the best English and European sides, he remained in the north-east as rumours abounded that many, including Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager whose opinions on goalkeeping have never been infallible, felt the 6' 2" Lifford man was not a commanding enough presence.

Given had threatened to leave Newcastle as early as 2000 but did not leave until nine years later, eventually being rewarded with the chance he craved with newly-minted Manchester City. Had he not suffered a shoulder injury against Arsenal in April 2010, he may well have gone into the following season as first-choice as City made their way towards the Champions League and, ultimately, the championship.

The injury opened the door for Joe Hart, who became Roberto Mancini's preferred option the following season and, having played in all 35 Premier League games that season before the injury at Arsenal, he never started another league game for City.

The last five years had seen him fitfully, manfully, plug on for Aston Villa and Stoke City without ever renewing his eminence as a number one.

With Ireland, too, his gloss faded following those devastating Euro 2012 finals; he would return to make Martin O'Neill's squad for this summer's championships but only after a lengthy saga of retirement and subsequent U-turns before injury spoiled hopes of a dream send-off.

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But it is the vast catalogue of excellence accrued during a quite incredible 20-year stint for the international team - he leaves the stage as Ireland's record caps holder with 134 - which will be recalled by his legion of fans.

His presence between the sticks followed that of fellow Donegal man Packie Bonner; as a child of the 1980s, he would ape his hero in the back garden with brothers Paul, Liam and Kieran while dad Seamus would drive Shay and his brothers down to Lansdowne Road for all those seminal Euro '88 and Italia '90 qualifiers.

Agnes Given, tragically, had passed with cancer when Shay was just five years old; his habitual soaking of the goalmouth with holy water before every international was invested with more than merely Catholic faith.

He yearned to covet the merest sprinkle of stardust from the storied gloves of Bonner, the hero from up the road and yet seemingly a million miles from home. Euro '88 and Italia '90 fuelled Given's dreams. Reality would crown them.

Less than two years after USA '94, Given himself would be between the sticks of an Irish goal, injuries to Kelly and his hero, Bonner, hastening the debut of the fresh-faced teenager.

Given and Bonner had spent the eve of his debut against Russia on March 27, 1996, sloshing around in preparation on Richmond Park mud in Inchicore before McCarthy, debuting in the managerial game, announced his sudden elevation in McDowell's pub next door.

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It was an inauspicious debut; Ireland lost 2-0; Roy Keane was sent off. His worth would soon reveal itself to all.

Despite the widening fissure between team and public, Given remained grounded; when journalists, supporters and players still travelled on the same airplane without rancour, Seamus and a couple of the brothers were always fine, intelligent company, peppering good nature with Donegal GAA talk.

Given, despite living amidst the acrid circus of the Premier League, always remained rooted to a sense of self and place.

Arguments will rage as to who was better - Bonner or Given? Bonner will aver his eminence was predicated on the superior players in front of him; Given didn't always have that luxury.

That is a debate which may rage on.

For now, as he steps off the carousel of a professional life after a truly contented career in which he gave his all to those whom he served - even if that was not always reciprocated - one thing is certain.

He leaves Irish supporters with a suitcase brimming with happy memories.

Irish Independent

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