Stars aligning for Shay Given

This may come as a shock, but nine years have somehow slipped by since Roy Keane made his infamous snipe at Shay Given, writes Brendan O’Brien
Stars aligning for Shay Given

This was back in the days when Keano was still the man with the Midas touch at Sunderland having turned a Championship season that threatened relegation into one that delivered promotion and his weekly press conferences used to throw up all sorts of gems.

Among them was a suggestion Given’s desire to squeeze every minute out of his Ireland career was blocking the supply chain behind him.

“I think players have agendas,” he said. “Certain players come over all the time, no matter what. Maybe they want to get 50 or a 100 caps and a pat on the back for it. I think Shay’s one of those ones. He wants to get 200 caps.”

Hard to believe that was 2007. It would have been impossible then to imagine a scenario almost a decade later that would see Keane five years removed from his last head managerial role in the UK and, instead, stationed on the sideline as assistant manager to an Irish side for which Given was straining to feature in a third major finals as he approaches the grand old age of 40.

It was a slim enough prospect for the Donegal goalkeeper until last Saturday night. Closer to a pipe dream, actually.

Then Jack Butland went and fractured an ankle while on England duty in Germany and the door opened obligingly for Given at Stoke City — and just as he was nearing full fitness for the first time in five months.

Given hasn’t played for Stoke since September, or at all since doing his knee with Ireland against Germany a month later, but the sight of poor Rob Elliot clutching his knee and being stretchered off only 15 minutes into his audition against Slovakia last Tuesday, added to David Forde’s inaction at Millwall, are all adding to the sense the stars are aligning for the man with 133 caps.

A twisted knee was the early diagnosis for Elliot.

Fears for his availability come the European Championships followed swiftly and the updates throughout the week were the last strokes on a bleak picture. It could hardly have been worse for a man earning just his fourth cap and one who had no opportunity to showcase his abilities prior to the concession of Slovakia’s first goal.

Martin O’Neill must have been cursing his luck, but not as much as the Toon Army. Newcastle may be teetering close to the abyss that is the drop into the Championship, but their utter uselessness on a near weekly basis had at least afforded the 29-year old ample opportunity to display his full ware of talents and he had rarely disappointed.

Widely regarded as the Magpies’ player of the season since assuming the gloves from the injured Dutch international Tim Krul in October, his anticipated start last Tuesday prompted a succinct headline that day in his local Shields Gazette newspaper. ‘Rob Elliot’s stunning Newcastle form finally recognised by Martin O’Neill’, it proclaimed.

Given was looking on from a studio in the stands in his role as a pundit with Setanta when Elliot broke down, talking at one point about his hopes of featuring for Stoke against Swansea this weekend or, failing that, a reserve game a week later.

Yet the waters surrounding Ireland’s choice of keeper are almost as muddy as ever.

Only seven games remain in this Premier League season, after all. Is that really enough of a run for a guy at his advanced age to find a groove of form after so long on the sidelines?

Given, lest we forget, was less than 100% fit in Poland four years ago — like too many others in that squad — and that was reflected in his performances.

Ireland can ill afford a repeat, which is where Darren Randolph comes in.

Though second-choice behind Adrian at West Ham United, he has managed to stockpile a fairly respectable total of 17 appearances this campaign between three runs in the Premier League, an early flurry in the Europa League, his starts in the FA Cup and a half-dozen starts with the Republic for whom he has been first-choice this last six months or so.

There is a sense that, regardless of Elliot’s fitness, the man from Bray would have been Ireland’s number one had the Euros started this week, but he could still desperately do with the Hammers seeing off Manchester United in next month’s FA Cup quarter-final replay what with Slaven Bilic’s policy of picking him in Cup competitions only.

Lose that and he faces two months without a meaningful game before Ireland open their European Championship account against Sweden in the Stade de France in June.

What value in that scenario his solid performances late last year against Germany, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Especially if Given is keeping goal for Mark Hughes.

All in all, it makes for a remarkably fluid, fascinating and uncertain battle for a position which Packie Bonnar and Given himself always had locked down on the five previous occasions when Ireland found themselves approaching a major tournament.

What Ireland need now is for someone to step up and hog the jersey.

Just as Given once did, in fact.

Email: Twitter: @Rackob

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