Friday 15 November 2019

Sad end for Ireland's greatest goalkeeper

Given’s historic international career finishes amid cloud of confusion

IT shouldn't have ended like this. Ireland's most capped player, and greatest ever goalkeeper, announcing his retirement via Twitter on a Monday evening, 48 hours before an international, and 24 hours after his manager insisted he would be staying on.

The last pictures of Shay Given in an Ireland shirt are of June's horror show in Poznan, where he looked a shadow of his usual self in a 10-day period where he made more mistakes than in his previous 16 years of service.

Those performances came in the shadow of a bizarre build-up, where he travelled to London to see his own surgeon amid concerns about an ongoing knee problem. Giovanni Trapattoni called him an idiot for saying he wished to play in a friendly against Bosnia, and qualified it by saying that he would be an idiot for playing him. The games demonstrated that something was clearly up. That much was plain for all to see.

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Since then, missives on his international future have been lost in the weird world of Trapattoni's Ireland.

At the end of July, in Donegal, he said that he hadn't yet spoken to Given, Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff to ascertain their thoughts on continuing for their country. He explained that Given had failed to return a text, a void in communication he attributed to Aston Villa's pre-season tour in the United States.

But the 73-year-old said that while he was leaving those players out of the squad for this week's friendly with Serbia, he would chat to them in the intervening period.

Since November, Given has stuck to the line that, post-Euro 2012, he would sit down with Trapattoni and see if he was needed. Randy Lerner's gesture in handing him a five-year contract at Aston Villa had to be recognised.

Yet in the same breath, he spoke of continuing until he was 40. In Donegal, Trapattoni floated the prospect of Keiren Westwood starting September's World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan with Given providing support. A statement which might have come as a surprise to the 125-times capped netminder.

It's the kind of thing which might have come up in that discussion they were supposed to have. Trapattoni turned up in Malahide on Sunday, stressing that everything was 'clear' with regard to the future of his senior players. He wanted them all for the trip to Astana next month, and was sure they would be available.

Marco Tardelli followed up yesterday lunchtime, with a confident assessment of the situation. "We decided to change for the friendly," he said. "We can count on the other players next time. Why not?"

By evening time, Given had provided the public response, announcing through social media that he was calling it quits. Bad news in its own right -- he will be Ireland's only starting Premier League 'keeper next weekend with Westwood in reserve at Sunderland -- but also worrying with regard to the status of Dunne, Keane, and Duff.

The Lifford native spoke to Trapattoni beforehand to inform him of his decision. What the timing of the episode proves is that, ultimately, the players are the only ones who know if they will be in Kazakhstan. Not for the first time, we find ourselves wondering if a problem might have been solved by the manager lifting the phone.

Having soldiered through many years together, the experienced quartet are close pals and the fear is that one departure will lead to a domino effect.

In his statement, Given made sure to thank all the players, managers, staff and fans he encountered over the years. In the FAI's subsequent missive, he was quoted as thanking Trapattoni, Tardelli and goalkeeping coach and good friend Alan Kelly.

"I understand the difficult decision that Shay had to make, and appreciate all of his efforts during his international career," said Trapattoni.

"He is a strong player, with a great character and his love of playing for his country always shone through. It has been a pleasure to work with him during my time with the team. I wish him the very best in his future."

Tardelli later added that he was "sad" as the management team wanted Given to play on.

That FAI statement did reveal that the 36-year-old had offered to return to "assist with goalkeeping duties" in case of an emergency.

If Westwood spends the first three months of the campaign on the bench, that could be enough reason to set the alarm bells ringing. Remember, in October, the Germans are coming, and if a sharp Given is back to his best in the top flight, his absence will become an issue.

His good friend Kevin Kilbane, who knows what it is like to end an Irish career on an improper note, told 'Newstalk' last night that he had spoken with Given throughout the summer.

"I think it wasn't an easy decision to make for him really," he said. "I think everyone knows how committed he's been.

"There's been questions asked of him over the years regarding playing in friendlies, playing too many games really, and not giving anyone else a chance. But that was just Shay, and how committed he was to playing. He wanted to play in every game he was available for."

Roy Keane and Dean Kiely were amongst those who took issue in that, but it was always a curious criticism. In an era where players have made the headlines for turning their back on international football, Given's consistent desire to turn out somehow became a source of contention.

Placed in that context, his decision to step away doesn't quite sit right. For all that he has suffered niggling injury problems over the past couple of years, he still has more to offer than the alternatives. With his track record of service, you wonder how much convincing he would need to aim for Brazil.

The question is how much effort was really made to point him in that direction. It's an unsatisfactory way to bring down the curtain.

In time, the memory will be of a fantastic career. For now, the story is that of a fine goalkeeper whose departure, ironically, could have been handled much better.

Irish Independent

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