Friday 24 November 2017

Given aiming to hit perfect pitch

David Kelly

David Kelly

"If tomorrow never comes ... " Robbie Keane's latest contribution to his dubious legacy of karaoke crowing seems appropriate as Ireland bid to sustain their interest in this Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

Shay Given has confronted 117 tomorrows during his international career; predominantly, they have embraced heartbreak, from Bursa to Brussels, Skopje to Suwon.

In what may be his final campaign in an international career spanning 15 years, Given is determined to do anything to help his Ireland team reach only their second major tournament in 18 years. Who will take a penalty now that Keane is hors de combat and persisting with his perennial crimes -- Garth Brooks for heaven's sake! -- against music?

"The captain?" suggests Given, who did volunteer to be an auxiliary penalty-taker on that breathless occasion in Suwon nine years ago.


Giovanni Trapattoni has just been referring to his habit of whistling instructions to "wake up" his sleeping players. "He'll be whistling a lot louder if he sees me going up to take a penalty!" laughs the Lifford netminder.

Despite his nominal captain's uncertain decision to pitch up with 'Loose Change' in Gibney's of Malahide, Given is hoping that the Irish supporters' dwindling resources can result in producing a more effective noise in the Aviva Stadium this evening.

"It's very important that we can get the crowd right up for it -- if they have a few pints before the game or whatever, just to get the place rocking and the atmosphere right. I really believe that if they get behind us, it will spur us on. They need to know they can make a huge difference."

For the players, achieving the correct balance between a relaxed approach -- which Keane clearly embraced with relish once he was ruled out of action -- and the nervous anxiety that must pervade such an awesome occasion, is key.

"It's crucial we all know how important the game is," he stresses. "Everyone knows how important it is, the media, the fans and players, but we've got to do the basics right and not get carried away. We have to do the job right. Hopefully the quality will be enough to see us through. We couldn't ask for any more than being at home looking for a point."

With his clean-sheet record now extended to 808 minutes, Given's solidity arms his squad with the knowledge that they can achieve the shut-out that will guarantee Ireland's place in the play-offs.

But as Macedonia's Goran Stavreski informed us so chillingly in the distant past, it only takes a second to score a goal. Even if it is the last one. Given states the case for defence, even with the full-backs eccentrically switched to opposite flanks.

"We've got to focus tomorrow night, it's a big game for everyone," he says. "I'm excited about it and looking forward to it. But as you've said, it takes a split second to score a goal and we have to make sure the unit is right at the back, get the basics right. But we know we have some very good players and we know that we can score goals.

"I think it's the team, the discipline of the team, that has contributed to the clean sheets -- it's very unfair when the back-four and goalkeeper get singled out because guys in midfield and attack close down our opponents.

"It's important when we lose the ball that we get our defensive shape right, keep it nice and narrow. Armenia play through the middle -- they're quite direct, little balls through the defence -- so we need to keep it tight with two back lines of four.

"What happened in the previous eight or nine games doesn't matter, what matters is that this game, they count for nothing. We know if we keep a clean sheet we're in the play-offs. It's a new game, we have to keep our focus and it's all about getting it right on the night."

Aside from the play-offs, one can recall a similar group-deciding scenario back in 2005 when Ireland under Brian Kerr required a result -- in that case a win -- against Switzerland to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, but ultimately were undone by a supine performance and a 0-0 draw.

But the recall of Richard Dunne infuses confidence in an Irish team that may supplant the verve of an Armenian team who are on fire and decamping to Dublin with little fear in their hearts.

"The Armenians may come with no fear and go all-out attack, we don't know. But the experience we have should help us. We've a settled team, obviously we'll miss Robbie, but it's a chance for someone else. We've got great experience and we need to use our experience.

"Richard showed how good a player he was against Russia and he's been proving it for years and he has huge experience. Luckily he's not out through suspension for this one, but he's one of the best defenders around.

"We have a relationship at club level now as well. It's important to have that communication with your centre-halves. Hopefully he'll have a night like Moscow."

Given Ireland's stubbornly systemic approach, one senses that Given's exemplary record will be severely challenged, even if his team strike early.

"It's always very difficult in that situation because a lot of teams across the world, when they get a goal ahead the mentality is not to concede a goal. It's a mentality throughout the team. But we need to believe we can go and get another goal.

"It's important to have balance, to have controlled aggression in the game and not go gung-ho and not leave ourselves exposed at the back because they have players who can hurt us."

Ireland rarely produce either gung or ho. This could be Given's farewell should Ireland submit. And you can sing it. Doubtless, Keane probably would.

Irish Independent

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