Friday 28 April 2017

Local hero Given relishing return to crisis-free Newcastle

Donegal man happy to see former club moving on from turmoil which pockmarked his 12 years on Tyneside, writes Stuart James

When Mark Knopfler's iconic Local Hero is reverberating around St James' Park before kick-off this afternoon, Shay Given could be forgiven for coming over all sentimental.



This, after all, will be the first time the Irish goalkeeper has played at Newcastle United since he quit the club to join Manchester City at the start of 2009, bringing to an end the best part of 12 colourful years on Tyneside.

It is tempting to suggest that it must have felt like a life sentence at times, in particular towards the end, when Joe Kinnear took over and became the eighth and last Newcastle manager Given played under, yet there is no trace of any frustration at the way things unravelled.

The Aston Villa goalkeeper speaks with great affection about the club where he made 461 appearances -- only Jimmy Lawrence and Frank Hudspeth have played more times for Newcastle -- and is delighted to be returning at a time when the team is thriving.

"It will be special going back there," Given says. "I had great times and I have great memories. I've always been very grateful for the support that I had when I was at the club and it will be nice to thank the fans because I haven't been back since I left.

"At one point I did think I would be there for life. But then things change and you change yourself a little bit. Sometimes you can go stale at a club. At the time I left I felt it was right for me [to go to Manchester City]. It was a new challenge and a new lease of life because you can get a little bit stuck in your ways. But I enjoyed my time at Newcastle."

There were a few disappointments along the way, but also some exhilarating highs, most notably the unforgettable night at St James' Park in 1997, when Faustino Asprilla helped Newcastle defeat Barcelona.

"To be playing in the Champions League and some of the atmospheres at St James' Park, especially that Barcelona game, stands out for me," Given says. "Tino got a hat-trick and Keith Gillespie was on fire on the right wing -- they're great memories that you'll have forever."

Kenny Dalglish was in charge at the time, the first of Given's eight managers. Ruud Gullit, Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder, Sam Allardyce, Kevin Keegan and Kinnear were the others. The 35-year-old laughs when it is put to him that it was "a bit mad" at times.

"Yeah, I think it was," he says. "Stability wasn't high up on the agenda when it came to managers. The most successful period we had was under Bobby Robson and I think we finished fourth, third and fifth in consecutive seasons. And then they decided to get rid of Bobby when we finished fifth and just missed out on the Champions League for a third year in a row.

"The thing about Newcastle is if there is a defeat or a couple of bad results, then it's a full-blown crisis. It's just one of those cities. But the people are obviously very happy up there at the moment at the way their team are playing and the results they are getting. There's no crisis on the horizon I can see."

Given has been impressed with Pardew's impact and has taken a special interest in the emergence of Tim Krul, his one-time goalkeeping protégé and someone that made an immediate impression on him when he joined Newcastle in 2005 at the age of 17.

"I think a lot of the Dutch players have that sort of belief in their ability, and you could see it in Tim from a young age. [Edwin] Van der Sar was in a similar kind of mould," Given says. "Tim has been fantastic this season and one of the reasons why Newcastle are so high in the league is because of his form. He has gone to a new level and been one of the goalkeepers of the season."

Given's own campaign has been a little frustrating. Although his performances have been decent, he picked up a hamstring injury in December that ruled him out for six weeks and Villa have struggled to find any consistency. Indeed it could be argued that while Newcastle have overachieved this season, Villa have done the opposite.

"We need to be doing better," says Given, who signed a five-year contract at Villa in the summer. "I have no fear of looking over our shoulder. I think it's more about pushing on. But it's no good me sitting here and just saying that. We've got to do it. This is a very big club and people shouldn't forget that."

It is a sign of how much things have changed at Newcastle that Given struggles to think of more than a handful of players that remain at the club from his own time there. Yet everything else will be familiar at St James' Park and, although he is too modest to admit it, he is sure to get a tremendous reception. He also does not have the problem of worrying about whether to celebrate if he scores. "Not unless I go up in the last minute," he laughs. Observer

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