Sunday 19 January 2020

Shay Given: The gloves aren't coming off just yet

Shay Given knows he is close to the end of his playing career, but he's hoping for another year

Shay Given: ‘ I have no divine right to get a club but if someone came along and it was of interest, it might happen’
Shay Given: ‘ I have no divine right to get a club but if someone came along and it was of interest, it might happen’

Colin Young

'What are you going to do?" It seems a fair opening question for a man who has done so much in his career but who is facing the reality of retirement after 26 years when his Stoke City contract expires in less than four weeks.

Shay Given is 41 and he will be a free agent on July 1. Coaching and commentating are the two obvious options, already explored. But Given wants to eke out another season while body and mind are still willing and able and clubs are still interested.

"What am I going to do?" he ponders. "I am going to try and look after the kids for a few weeks, which is full on with the baby born last week, but Stoke have released me on a free transfer and I want to find another club.

"Yes, I am 41 but I do feel I could go on for another year, be it as a number two or three in the Premier League, or number one in the Championship. There might be one last hurrah, a promotion, just depends what is out there. I have no divine right to get a club but if someone came along and it was of interest, it might happen.

"I know the end is near. It could be this year, could be next year, but once you do retire, especially at my age, you can't go back in six months and say, 'I've changed my mind and I want to give it another go', and every ex-player I speak to says continue as long as you can. It is not that far away and I have to get my head around it, but it will be hard to replace that everyday involvement - the craic, the laughs in training, the stuff no one really sees.

"There are a couple of options, which is encouraging. I know if the phone doesn't ring by the end of the window then I won't be moping around because the party is over, but I do feel I could play another year . . . definitely."

When Mark Hughes announced Stoke's retained list, Given's exclusion was not a great surprise. He played the first five games of last season but spent most of it on the bench as deputy to Lee Grant. With promising England 'keeper Jack Butland fully recovered from a serious ankle injury, Ireland's former number one has served his purpose in the Potteries.

But a Premier League number three has to work hard for his money, which is an interesting test for a man in his 40s. The head can handle the lack of game-time but the body needs more care, manipulation and specific preparations before it can be thrown around a goalmouth for a couple of hours.

Given, who will play in Michael Carrick's testimonial at Old Trafford today, says: "I enjoy it still, which is mad really, I know. I still want to do it, diving around everyday. There's sports science, yoga, gym work, you have to do pre-activation and stretching and you must be more prepared the older you get. But once I'm out there, I just love it. The day I don't is the day to pack it in.

"We train harder than we play in a game and usually we are first out there and last off. There is a lot of difficult physical stuff and it is tough but that's what I've done all my life. The body is used to it.

"Even out there playing in the garden with my son, Shayne, I'm competitive and I'll be throwing myself around. He brings his mates around for two-v-twos or three-v-threes, and it's serious stuff. That was how it started for me with my brothers in the garden, jumpers for goalposts. He's got the Samba goals and nets, so it's moved up a level, but it doesn't really change. We just love playing. I will still want to play for an over-40s team when I am finished - outfield, probably centre-forward."

The inside of a dressing room is all Given has known since he left Donegal in 1991 to pursue his dream after impressing for Lifford Celtic and joining the real Celtic of Glasgow. He was 16 at the time and although he did not make a senior appearance for the Scottish champions, it was the perfect base to launch his career.

But that was also a challenging period. Those first months away from home have been the making and breaking of young Irish footballers for years. The dedication Given shows today was always going to drive him when others might be tempted to return home.

"It was tough to start," he says. "Really tough. I came from a big family and I was living in digs with an old couple in Bishopbriggs, and in that first year the homesickness was really hard. I just kept my head down and tried to get on with it. I won't forget how hard that was.

"A couple of my best friends I went to school with back home are both postmen in the village, one of them still lives at home with his mum, the other built his house in his dad's back garden. They have great lives, they're both settled and happy. Donal is married with two kids.

"But I know how lucky I am with the stuff I've seen in my life, the places I've been, playing for my country across the world, the players I've played with and against - playing football for a living. That didn't happen to kids like me.

"Any time I played for Ireland was special because of what it meant to me, growing up as fans with my dad and brothers. That's something that can't be taken away from me and goes with me to the grave. It's an honour to represent your country and you'd never think it possible coming from a place like Lifford.

"There is no greater feeling than pulling on the Ireland jersey and standing there singing the national anthem, knowing you are the best in your position for your country. Club football is wonderful knowing your fans are behind you, but to have a whole country supporting you is very, very special.

"Growing up in Ireland, people would ask, 'What do you want to be?' 'Footballer.' 'Yeah, but what you gonna be?' 'Footballer.' No one really believes you because everyone dreams of it, and where I was from it just didn't happen. It was all I wanted. You have to believe in yourself and believe in the people around you who believe in you. That was always really important to me, I know that.

"I left home at 16 and since then I've been told to be here at this time, report here for this game, this training session, pre-season whatever . . . 'You must be here', 'you must be there'. When that day comes and I am not told to be anywhere, it will be strange.

"I'm institutionalised like the guy in Shawshank Redemption who got arrested straight after being released, because he couldn't deal with being out of prison. That'll be me. I have always enjoyed the wind-ups and the laughs and I know I am pretty much at the middle of it when it's happening. When will I grow up? I don't know, hopefully never. It's just good to enjoy the crack in life. You're only here once. I am 19 forever, like the song."

Except he is not. And he knows it. There is a possibility that management beckons for Given, and certainly interests him. But a man who has spent more than two decades in and observing the Premier League has inevitably had his eyes opened. Time on the bench at Stoke could prove invaluable. Given, who briefly served as Paul Lambert's assistant at Aston Villa, is already a UEFA 'A'-qualified coach.

There is the small matter of finding the rare openings available to the rookie coaches. And no course can prepare the manager for the constant scrutiny and realities of the job, in front of and away from the cameras. Throughout his career Given has lined up with individuals more interested in themselves. He believes it is becoming increasingly difficult for managers and their clubs to sign the right characters.

"You feel it more when you have been at a club for so long because you feel like a fan," he adds. "I thought I was going to be at Newcastle for life and I felt like a Geordie, I'd been there so long and I felt the fans' frustrations, and joy, and seeing some players, mercenaries, coming in and taking the money, who didn't really care.

"That was 10, 15 years ago, And it's getting worse because you don't always know if you are signing a bad egg who will just down tools if things are not going his way, but I've seen it happen. It is so much harder for chairmen and managers now because they are signing players on big contracts.

"The recruitment has to be so much more than what they do on the pitch and how good they look in games. What are they really like away from the pitch? What kind of individual are they and will they fit into the club? These are important issues. If you are going to buy a house for £10 million you do all the due diligence possible before you sign the contract.

"It is tricky to do the homework on so many foreign players but we're talking huge sums of money and you don't really know his personality.

"I think I could do the job. I have all the qualifications but they could just sit in a drawer. There are not many English or Irish managers - it's not demoralising - but when you see clubs appointing foreign managers, like Norwich recently, it is a concern for English and Irish coaches. There seems to be fewer opportunities and even if you want to become an assistant or a goalkeeping coach, these guys are bringing their own people with them, so there's no jobs out there."

While the future waits, there is enough to keep him occupied at home for now. Given and fiancée Becky have just had their second child, Cassie, sister to 17-month-old Gracie. The big man's big hands are full.

And then there is a book to write. Given has finally been persuaded to pen his memoirs and is meeting ghost writer Chris Brereton over the summer to refresh the brain. He wrote Jimmy White's and Steve Harmison's biographies, which are both humorous and honest - right up Given's street.

It will cover all, from helping with his father Seamus' pitch 'n' putt and door-to-door market garden businesses, his mother Agnes's death from cancer when he was just five, the highs and lows of his career, including Gary Speed's suicide, his acrimonious and difficult departure from his beloved Newcastle - "Mike Ashley might not want to buy the book" - and, of course, Saipan.

"I won't want to be too serious but I will be honest," he adds. "The publishers have come up with some topics they want me to discuss, and of course Saipan is in there. It's standard for every Irish player that was there to talk about 'f***ing Saipan'."

Shay given... a career in numbers

462: Appearances for Newcastle United in 11 years at St James' Park

636: Total club appearances

£11 million: Total of his transfer fees to Newcastle United, Manchester City and Aston Villa

12: Clean sheets in 17 games for Sunderland in 1996 - then an old second division record

10: Clean sheets in 16 games for Middlesbrough in 2014

20 Years, 4 months, 1 day from international debut to official retirement

154 Days:  The duration of Given's first international 'retirement' (August 2012-January 2013)

3 Trophies won: FA Cup, Manchester City 2011; Football League first division, Sunderland, 1996; Intertoto Cup, Newcastle, 2006

134:  Ireland caps

52: clean sheets

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