Thursday 12 December 2019

Hard to understand why Given has come back

Great 'keeper risks tainting his legacy by not realising it's time to go, says Richard Sadlier

Does Shay Given risk tainting his legacy by not realising when it's time to go? Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Does Shay Given risk tainting his legacy by not realising when it's time to go? Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Richard Sadlier

You're a long time retired", said Shay Given last week as he explained his return to international football after a two-year absence. "You've a long time to look back. I don't wanna think in 10 years' time that I should have given it another go or played a few more games . . . I don't wanna have any regrets".

He won his 126th cap on Wednesday and hopes to play a role in the coming qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, but you have to wonder why he returned to play for Ireland now.

Retirement phobia is a widely known, yet seldom discussed, phenomenon in elite sport. As the name suggests, it's to do with fear of the inevitable, that period of your life when you know you will no longer be able to do what you currently can. It's not exclusive to sportspeople, obviously, but the difficulty in adjusting can be considerable when the time finally comes.

There may be a sense of relief initially depending on the circumstances, but eventually the regret and the loss is all that you feel. More than the loss of what you can do, it's about the disappearance of what you once were. The word 'former' follows you everywhere. It's inescapable. In the closed-shop world inhabited by professional footballers, the thought of being on the outside looking in is a grim prospect. Acceptance of your new situation is a world away; you'd do anything to turn back the clock.

Shay Given's return to international football came from nowhere. The media weren't calling for it and Irish supporters weren't campaigning for it. Given wasn't talking about it and Martin O'Neill didn't predict it. David Forde's performances for Ireland did nothing to suggest it was needed, while Given himself still can't get into the Aston Villa side.

What's this all about?

The football argument is straightforward. Given is surely among the top three or four goalkeepers eligible to play for Ireland, so his selection in the squad is hard to question. Initial reports that he was guaranteed a place in the starting team have been denied, so including him on that basis is hardly a big call. If anything, you could argue his return to the squad could lead to an improvement in Forde as it increases the competition for places.

O'Neill is on a two-year contract which is unlikely to be renewed if Ireland fail to qualify from this group. Any potential disruption to the development of Forde or Kieran Westwood shouldn't concern him. If he thinks Given is good enough to do the job for him now then he is right to pick him. The medium- and long-term evolution of the squad should not be the primary focus of a manager employed on a short-term basis, specifically to qualify for Euro 2016.

The most difficult aspect of all of this development, however, is to understand Given's motivation. He spoke of "unfinished business" last week at Ireland's training base in Malahide. There was no single reason given for his U-turn. "Nothing really much," he said, "I probably missed it as much as anything".

I find it hard to imagine Given travelling to Ireland games knowing he's not going to play. He has never experienced that so that's not what he was missing while he was away from the scene. That wasn't his role throughout his international career so I can't see why he would warm to it now.

It's harder still to justify why he would win back his place in the team. He doesn't merit selection based on his club form. And if we're judging him on his last few games for Ireland, then he loses further ground on David Forde. Why would he want to return to the Ireland set-up to be a bit player on the off-chance Forde was unavailable?

Given still believes he can do a job for Ireland and he is entitled to that view. He may even feel he is also worthy of a place in Aston Villa's team, or of a starting place at another Premier League club. However, there comes a point in every player's career when you have got to accept your best days are behind you. You have to accept you are not the player you were and you have got to know when it's time to walk away. Regardless of your feelings on what you have been through in the past, embracing the next stage of your life is the best way to go.

Last week Given dismissed concerns of tainting his Ireland legacy if the comeback didn't work out, but this feels like a last-ditch attempt by a once-great 'keeper to put the inevitable on hold for a little longer. He should be proud of all he's achieved and be hopeful for the future, but he may be undermining both by refusing to let go of the past.

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