No grudges, no looking back
Shay Given may be a veteran, but he retains a burning ambition to play at the very top, writes Dion Fanning
On Tuesday afternoon when Shay Given met the press, he was asked the questions one would expect a man who turns 39 tomorrow to be asked.
There was talk of the ‘twilight’ of his career, jokes about his age in relation to Jack Grealish and a general sense of being in the company of a wise and venerable man.
Given tries to tell a different story. In his version, there is no winding down and today’s FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Wembley is not a testimonial for a great career but a means to an end.
In August 2012, Given began the season for Aston Villa as their Premier League goalkeeper. He’d played more than 40 games the year before but when Villa lost to Everton at the end of August, Given was replaced by Brad Guzan. He hasn’t played in the Premier League since.
He had left Manchester City to join Aston Villa in order to play and he wasn’t playing. He had retired from international football after the European Championships to prolong his club career but suddenly it looked as if there was nothing to prolong.
“I think it’s sort of well-documented,” he said on Tuesday sitting in a dressing room at Bodymoor Heath, the Aston Villa training complex outside Birmingham. “They wanted a few of the players off the wage bill and different things and I was one of them. So I was cast to one side or left out or whatever you want to call it and Brad[Guzan] came in and done well.”
Given had nowhere to go. He played only seven more matches in 2012/’13 and, last season, the only games he got came on a loan spell he loved at Middlesbrough. For him, this wasn’t a gentle slowing of the pace but an unnecessary dismantling of his career.
He says he would have been happy to stay on loan at Boro but after three months, he was back at Villa and things became stranger when he ended last season as Paul Lambert’s assistant.
“Weird, yeah” he laughs. “Well, he asked me. I’d done my A licence, my B licence and the club were in a bit of a sticky position because of the staff that had left. Life is too short to have grudges. You have got to move on. I am employed by Aston Villa and if they felt I could bring something for the six weeks it was coaching at the end of last season, then that was something I was prepared to do.”
Given assisted Lambert until the end of the season but in the summer, a new man arrived. Roy Keane was central to Given’s return to international football but his time at Villa was brief. Keane left before Christmas followed by the usual trail of stories about rows and training-ground scenes.
Given doesn’t feel they contributed to Keane’s departure. “I don’t think so. You’d have to ask Roy. He made a statement why he left. There are heated discussions with managers all the time and players and assistants. That’s daily life in football. Not everyone agrees with everything. I wouldn’t have thought that was the reason.”
Keane’s exit added to the sense of doom that surrounded Villa in the final days of the Lambert era. On the field, Villa’s gloom-filled football involved an endless and fruitless search for goals.
“I’m not going to sit here and start digging Paul Lambert out, the manager is judged on results and they simply weren’t good enough. Randy Lerner felt it was time for a change and now we have to get behind the new manager, which we all have done.”
All that changed in February with the arrival of a man who is a stranger to doom and laughs in the face of gloom: Tim Sherwood.
Sherwood’s belief in the legend of Tim Sherwood has made a difference. “In general, Tim is a very positive guy, both in football and life and that has rubbed off on the players,” Given says. “He has encouraged us to get forward more, to get more bodies into the box, to support Christian Benteke more up front, and respect the opposition but we have strengths and attacking, exciting players as well. He has given us a bit more belief and confidence in ourselves and that has shown in the games.”
Given praises Sherwood’s man-management and he says the players are responding to his emotional style.
“He is finding it hard to hide his emotions on the touchline. I am sure you have written about it as well. He does wear his heart on his sleeve. That is good. People and players especially respond and respect that as well. You see he is hurting when we don’t get a good result and you look at the Tottenham game and he was buzzing after that on Saturday, especially going back to his old club.”
Jack Grealish is a player who has benefited from the Sherwood appointment and Given offers an insight into the player’s mentality.
“I just think Jack needed someone to put his arm round him and really get behind him. This manager has done that. He has done it before with young players at Tottenham. It’s great for Jack, he has shown if the manager gives you that belief and gives him that confidence injection that he has got ability and can cause teams problems.”
Grealish suggested last month that he was ready to return to international football. Given believes that the time is right.
“I was just joking with him there that he’s taken a year out like a student or something. We hope he does. He got the young player of the year award over there, I think his family were over. He got a really good reception. He should really be involved in the first team squad at the minute with Ireland I think. He is a young guy, you don’t want to rush him into these decisions. But in an ideal world we’d love him to play for us.”
Given found out 90 minutes before the game against Poland that he was Ireland’s first-choice goalkeeper again. That is O’Neill’s style and Given isn’t going to question it even if he says he would have liked to have known earlier.
If he wants to keep it, he has to play as often as he can. He’d like to stay at Villa but he’d like to play too. Today he will expect to start having played in the previous rounds but he knows football doesn’t always work like that. He played in every round for Newcastle in 1999 as they reached the final and it made no difference.
In the build-up to the final, Newcastle’s manager Ruud Gullit asked goalkeeping coach Terry Gennoe to inform Given that he wouldn’t be playing. “That was a bit of a slap in the face or whatever you want to call it. But you can’t look back in football, you’ve just got to look forward and at the end of your career maybe look back and think you were harshly done by or whatever.”
Given was also part of the Manchester City squad which won the FA Cup in 2011 but he didn’t play so it doesn’t mean much to him. He has a medal but he doesn’t know where it is, “eBay or something”.
If Villa beat Liverpool, Given will want to play in the final but that isn’t news. When Sherwood watched his first game as Aston Villa manager from the stand, Given made a spectacular and crucial save from Leicester City’s Matty James.
Given talks about how important it was for the club to do well and how he was happy to contribute, but he also jokes, “I was hoping he might pick me in the Premier League then but it mustn’t have been that good.”
The cup run has been good and it would get even better if Villa knocked out Liverpool but Given wants to play in the Premier League. He is unlikely to start in Villa’s next league game at City and that makes it harder.
“It’s difficult, especially when you play well and you think you probably deserve to stay in but Brad’s played well as well this season. You just know when you’re given the opportunity you’ve got to be bang on your game. It’s not an ideal situation because you want to play every week, you want to be match fit.”
He looks around the league and sees goalkeepers older than him playing or involved in the Premier League. Mark Schwarzwer has played Premier League games for Leicester City this season and 43-year-old Brad Friedel was on the bench when Villa played Spurs last weekend.
It is where he wants to be. He’d love to win a trophy and make some history for Aston Villa and he’s looking forward to “diving around Wembley today”. The FA Cup has shown people, including himself in some ways he says, what he can do. But don’t think of it as a farewell. Don’t even call it a rebirth. “It would be more a rebirth if I was playing regularly. It’s still a burning ambition to be playing more in the Premier League, that’s where we all want to play.”
Aston Villa v Liverpool,
BT Sport 1, 3.00