As of yesterday, Shay Given has been 39 years on the planet. For at least 15 of those, he was indisputably Ireland’s best goalkeeper. For a dozen or so he was one of the best three goalkeepers in the Premier League, among the top 10 in the world.
You think how difficult it is to operate in that realm. Last month, World Soccer Magazine selected what it considered to be the 500 most important players on the globe. Robbie Keane was the only Irish player that featured. And note the use of the term ‘important’, not ‘best’.
By virtue of all the goals and trophies he’s racked up in recent years in as growing and key a football market as the US, Keane by that criteria was a worthy inclusion, but as last month’s international against Poland showed, important does not necessarily make you still among the best.
When Given was in his prime, no such distinction was necessary. Throughout the noughties, he’d routinely make such lists. He was world class, something among the Irish national squad only Roy Keane and Damien Duff, for a couple of years there in his Chelsea pomp, could be likewise.
And yet whenever guests on Second Captains are asked to study the Good Wall, who among them will ever prompt Murph to have a photo of Donegal’s finest in hand, copping that as terrific and all as BOD and ROG were with the oval ball, hardly anyone in Germany and Spain and Iran knows of it or them while all those places learned the tough way who and how good Shay Given was.
Yet you can understand why Given hasn’t been seen near that wall.
For the past three seasons, he’s hardly been seen or hardly played anywhere at all.
The only medals he ever won were a Championship medal from his year on loan with Sunderland in 1996 and a 2011 FA Cup winner’s medal with Man City as a benchwarmer to Joe Hart, the whereabouts of which Given himself doesn’t know.
Even when he was at the height of his powers, he was only a fleeting rather than constant presence in the Champions League. For all his goalkeeping prowess and Alex Ferguson’s goalkeeping troubles post-Schmeichel and pre-Van der Sar, the only United he’d play for in those years was Newcastle.
Despite the urgings of Arsenal’s goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson, Arsene Wenger similarly resisted signing him; we can only speculate Le Prof was more mindful of Given’s height than his consistency and brilliance, hence his preference for — and misfortune with — Messrs Almunia, Mannone, Fabianski et al (How poetic it would be for Given to deny Wenger another trophy next month, especially as the Arsenal chief foiled Given in his one cup final appearance to date 17 years ago).
In 2009, it finally seemed as if Given had found his rightful stage. When Manchester City signed him and he signed with them, it was a statement of intent and ambition from both parties.
But after just the one season, he was out of favour and Joe Hart was in. Although Given had been faultless in helping City reach as high a league position as they’d had in 18 years, Roberto Mancini was swayed by Hart’s younger age profile and greater scope to improve.
It’s been a pretty testing career for Given since. In the summer of 2011, he’d sign a five-year deal with Aston Villa but after Christmas Villa would endure such a slump it would carry into the following summer, where Given would uncharacteristically underperform at Euro 2012.
That (we thought) was the end of his international career. Then when Alex McLeish was fired from Villa, Given was essentially finished with their first team too. Over the past three seasons, he’s played only two Premier League games for them.
On top of all that there has been the pain of a divorce to Jane, mother to his two children, which might explain why even someone as mad to play first-team football as he has been reluctant to jeopardise an estimated £60,000 weekly salary.
And yet throughout all that time, he’s remained a model pro. He’d continue to train diligently; the now-viral clip of him last Sunday using the ball as a foam roller during a stoppage in play wasn’t the man showing off as simply a personal and professional reflex.
When he’d go on loan to Middlesboro for 16 games last season, he’d keep a clean sheet in 10 of them, a trigger for that club to go on a run which now has them a game within promotion back to the big boys.
Paul Lambert would be so impressed by his attitude, he’d ask him to step in as a temporary assistant manager and played him in all this year’s FA Cup games, a policy continued by Tim Sherwood.
Another coach would be won over by him. Back in 2002 when Roy Keane spoke about dead fish in the Irish squad and how he could see why some of them were playing at the clubs they were, we all assumed it was a dig at Given’s passivity and ambition.
Roy had thrown Given a few digs before, claiming he was almost too willing to play for Ireland, friendlies and all. But after becoming an assistant at both Ireland and Villa and seeing a certain goalkeeper again at close quarters, Keane was happy to have Given back playing for Ireland again.
Given has been gracious enough to recognise Keane’s role in his recent revival — “I think Roy was instrumental in getting me back with the Irish squad,” he said last week. But he’s also smart and worldly enough to know performance more than sentiment governed Keane’s judgment.
Back when Keane was in his own prime as a player, the injury-plagued Terry Phelan came on in the closing minutes for Everton against Manchester United.
It prompted Keane on the final whistle to approach his old 1994 World Cup teammate and grin, “God, Terry, I thought you were dead.”
A lot of people thought Shay Given’s football career was dead too. Last Sunday against Liverpool showed there’s life and magic left in him and the FA Cup yet.