Shay Given set for recall as O'Neill puts faith in seniority
MARTIN O'NEILL is preparing to make the first big decision of his tenure as Ireland manager by drafting Shay Given back into the fold as his number one 'keeper.
The Derryman and his assistant Roy Keane feel that the experienced Donegal man, who stepped away from the international game after Poland in 2012, still has the presence to take the gloves for the forthcoming Euros campaign.
His recall would ruffle a few feathers in the camp considering that David Forde and Keiren Westwood, long-term squad members at this stage, were expected to battle it out for the responsibility.
But O'Neill is not convinced by either stopper and that is why the invitation has been extended to Given.
With Keane on hand in the same role at Aston Villa to report on the 38-year-old's well-being, the Irish camp are fully aware of his current fitness levels. Since the Corkman arrived at Paul Lambert's assistant, Given has jumped up the Villa pecking order to reserve behind Brad Guzan having been frozen out completely last term when it looked like he'd played his last game for the club.
Instead, after 20 months out of favour, he was given the nod for Wednesday's Capital One Cup meeting with Leyton Orient, a game that ended in a shock defeat for the Premier League side.
Given made one outstanding save in the fixture, but was beaten for the League One outfit's late winner and his performance has received mixed reviews.
It was his first competitive outing since his three-month loan spell at Middlesbrough ended in February. He was then drafted into the Villa coaching staff temporarily for the remainder of the campaign following the suspension and then the sacking of Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa.
As ever in Irish football, a coterie of leading characters find their paths beautifully interwoven and it was actually Keane who went to Middlesbrough on a scouting mission to watch Given when he made noises that he fancied an international comeback.
The conclusion that O'Neill reached was that he would wait until September and assess the netminder's club status at that point. He also wanted to have a closer look at his available alternatives.
At that stage, he couldn't have envisaged that it would be a career move by Keane as opposed to a Given escape that facilitated a recall.
Last week, as he presented his first meaningful squad, the Irish supremo was grilled about the role of Keane as an inside man with regard to securing the services of Jack Grealish. There was no mention of the other Villa wild card.
There is a wonderful irony in Keane's input offering Given the opportunity to add to his 125 international caps.
The long-term team-mates, key figures on the road to the 2002 World Cup, were never considered to be close. Indeed, the typically forthright ex-Manchester United captain questioned the motives behind Given's desire to add to his caps total when he was at the peak of his powers.
"I think players have agendas - certain players come over all the time no matter what," said Keane in 2007. "Maybe they want to get 50 or 100 caps and a pat on the back for it. I think Shay's one of those ones - he wants to get 200 caps."
"Shay seems to have played every game - even friendlies. You have other 'keepers, who travel all the time. Then, when they do play, they're taken off. I've always thought, when it comes to the lads who travel all the time, 'Give them a game'.
"Qualifiers you have to win - but with friendly matches, give the lads who travel a game and don't be changing them at half-time, give them a full game."
Keane was subsequently critical of the goalkeeper's role in Thierry Henry's controversial handball in Paris two years later.
However, his arrival at Villa appears to have improved Given's standing and last week the veteran praised Paul Lambert's summer appointment.
"It's great to have him here," he said when asked about Keane, "He's a real leader, a character and a great assistant for the manager. He's a manager himself in his own right."
O'Neill has spoken about his need for characters on the pitch. The loss of Richard Dunne has removed one vocal presence and Given does add experience in that regard.
Yet it is understood that the bottom line issue is that management simply feel that the former Newcastle and Manchester City man is a better 'keeper than their other options.
Rob Elliot and Darren Randolph were also part of the provisional 36-man squad for next week's gathering that will be pared down at the weekend. Given has to formally confirm that he is on board before the final cut is made.
He could earn his 126th cap in Wednesday's Aviva Stadium clash with Oman, a friendly game that would be of importance to Given because he has to build his match sharpness.
Then all roads lead to Tbilisi on Sunday week, where O'Neill will be looking for the old guard to deliver the goods. The 62-year-old was appointed to do whatever was necessary to book a passage to the 2016 finals in France.
Returning Forde and Westwood to understudy roles would be a significant statement.