Sunday 8 December 2019

Don Givens recalls the day he destroyed the Soviet empire

Don Givens scores one of the goals in his hat-trick against the Soviet Union at Dalymount Park. Photo: Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
Don Givens scores one of the goals in his hat-trick against the Soviet Union at Dalymount Park. Photo: Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

So you've scored a hat-trick for your country. Where to next?

Probably secreted behind a velvet rope in a punningly sordid nightclub. Hangers-on gleefully kowtowing. Magnums of champagne constantly flowing. Bevies of compliant ladies permanently glowing.

And thence transported upon four extravagant wheels with blacked-out windows, lest the world's normality threatens to invade Nirvana, to continue the party in a vulgar mansion, beyond a moat of liquid gold.

Beyond reality.

Don Givens, Ireland's joint-fourth record goalscorer, scored two hat-tricks for his country -- the only man to do so. The first came against the Soviet Union almost 36 years ago (October 30, 1974) in the European Championships qualifiers.

He sits in his Birmingham home and laughs at the juxtaposition when asked to remind us what he did all those years ago. When the Soviets were a 'crack' outfit, the Cold War was freezing and James Bond was the only known Westerner to have met a real Russian.

"It's a true story," he confirms yet again. Of how he and Eoin Hand had to catch a flight back to England because the private jet caught a flat tyre. As usual, they skipped the showers in Dalymount -- visiting teams would have died for such a privilege.

As they spilled on to the lane outside 'Dalyer', a throng not seen since James Connolly marched into the GPO pushed and shoved and imprisoned the team coach. Givens and Hand were in their mud-splattered working clothes; their civvies rested on a bed in the Tara Towers Hotel way over in Booterstown.

What to do? "We just battered our way out of there, me still with the ball, and we walked down St Peter's Road and decided to hitch a lift," smiles Givens. "We couldn't get a taxi for love nor money."

On and on they went down to the old cattle market on the North Circular Road, when a passer-by answered their thumbs. In they hopped, full of sweat and out of breath.

"Howyiz lads!" the driver beckoned. "Were yizzer at the match?"

The two boys just looked at each other and burst out laughing. "It turned out he actually knew my father, so instead of just dropping us at the taxi rank, he brought us all the way out to the hotel."

Dublin remained buzzing for a few days afterwards, a bit like she had during the belated Dublin Gaelic footballers' revival earlier that summer under Kevin Heffernan.

The 3-0 spanking of the USSR, replete with the marvellous Oleg Blokhin, hinted at a bright future.


"It was a big step forward for Irish football in terms of being taken seriously," recalls Givens. "It wasn't as if we were being battered for 90 minutes and then sneaked a winner. We won comprehensively."

It was a superb display of football, marshalled by the veteran John Giles and prompted eagerly by a hirsute teenager who immediately captured the imagination of 45,000 and more.

"Ah Liam Brady," nods Givens. "Gilesy just gave him the ball from the whistle. It was as if he had been playing for 10 years."

He still recalls the goals with acute clarity; few modern footballers can recall events of last week, never mind last year. Gilesy's raker to Joe Kinnear, the full-back's early cross. "The best of the three."

Steve Heighway's throw, Ray Treacy's flick, the bobble. "I was probably offside." The finish.

Then Gilesy's free-kick and another glancing header. "Straight from the training ground."

A year later, Givens would score all four as Ireland downed Turkey in Dublin, even though Angel Franco Martinez, the Spanish referee, nearly called the whole thing off as stones rained in from the School End.

Ireland were well placed to qualify but historical FAI incompetence and penny-pinching undid them; Giles' team were forced to play their third-last and second-last qualifying matches away -- in the off-season.

First Kiev, where they lost, then Berne on the way home -- funny that -- where they also succumbed. The Soviets sneaked qualification by a point. The theme of glorious failures was now developing the pathos of Greek tragedy.

Givens would bow out after the classic 1981 defeat of France but earlier that year was booed off at home to Wales in Tolka Park.

"One day you're the greatest thing since sliced bread when you're knocking the goals in but if you go a few games without a goal, suddenly you're a w****r. I took all that in my stride.

"I remember my name was read out and there were boos. And you think to yourself, 'Well, I'm still the same guy, I'm still here trying my best to put the ball in the net'.

"For me, when I was playing, my big goal was always to impress my team-mates. They're the ones who know whether you're being honest or not."

At his peak with QPR, he earned £200 a week, not even enough to hurry Wayne Rooney's concierge down the corner shop for some post-coital ciggies. Honour and honesty drove Givens.

He transferred that attitude into management, particularly with Ireland's U-21s. His methods rarely garnered universal praise and yet, as assessments of character flaws go, who can contradict his views on Anthony Stokes, David Connolly, Stephen Ireland etc? And latterly the pitifully tired Keith Treacy.

"Jesus Christ," he sighs. "I've said before, some things change. Of course you can't have Robbie Keane thumbing a lift on St Peter's Road. But some of the basics should be maintained.

"The willingness and the commitment to pull on the green jersey should never diminish, whether you're earning €40,000 a week, €4,000 a week or €40 a week.

"People go on about the fact that I was some kind of authoritarian disciplinarian. I think if you ask any of the players, I was far from that. It was the opposite. But there were basic standards I expected and I don't think it was wrong to expect that."

Givens still scouts for the FAI -- the potentially eligible Ciaran Clark from Villa last week, QPR's sensational Hogan Ephraim next week.

Today, he is in Yerevan to watch Slovakia, who have pleasantly surprised him. But the man who helped source Giovanni Trapattoni as Irish boss is not fearful.

"I'd be reasonably optimistic," he says. "Let's take care of the Russians first, though."

Take it from a man who knows how.

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