Life as a fan: ‘I’ll have my son standing up for the anthems in the living room’

Shay Given is Ireland’s all-time longest serving player, having played from 1996 to 2016, as he amassed 134 caps. His last competitive game saw him carried off injured in the famous 1-0 win over Germany. Now 41, he’s a free agent.

Life as a fan: ‘I’ll have my son standing up for the anthems in the living room’

Q: Your book begins with a powerful first chapter addressing the loss of your mum when you were four. How emotional has the process of writing and discussing this book been for you?

A: Yeah, it was emotional. Even looking back is emotional. For me, my dad, and brother and sisters, it’s quite raw. It happened when we were so young and it’s tragic, of course, but it’s part of my life growing up in Donegal, and all that brought. The tragedy of losing mum when I was only four meant my dad had to deal with six young kids. That was tough.

Q: You’ve learned a lot about that time through writing the book...

A: My dad helped a lot with that chapter because, obviously, I was so young. He spoke at length to Chris Brereton, my ghostwriter, about stuff I didn’t even know around my mum’s death. He came out with it all and he wouldn’t really speak to us about it for years so it was quite good to get that out of my dad. It’s something to have forever and look back on in years to come.

Q: On the football side, World Cup play-offs are big turning points in the book. You described them as being “like a trip to the dentist”. Why are they such a pain?

A: The lads have done so well over 18 months and it all boils down to four days. Two games. It’s a lot of pressure, such high stakes. To get to the World Cup finals would be phenomenal but you have to keep a calm head and a focused head, and hopefully that’ll get us across the final hurdle.

Q: Your first competitive loss in an Ireland jersey was in the World Cup play-off second leg in Belgium in 1997. That seemed to have a lasting effect on you?

A: Yeah, at the time I was really young. You can see the pictures in the book, it was quite emotional for me at the end. Just growing up in Ireland as an Irish fan and watching World Cups in the Jack Charlton era, it was my chance to go there. You don’t know if you’re ever going to get to a World Cup. You don’t know what the future holds.

Q: It was all the sweeter four years later then. What’s your standout memory of the Iran play-offs?

A: The lows of Belgium were the total opposite to the highs of Iran. Those two games were two of my best on a personal level. I made some big saves home and away. The realisation that we were actually going to the World Cup finals was one of the best feelings you’ll ever have as a player.

Q: You’ve mentioned ‘firebombs’ going off that night in Tehran. It must have been some contrast between your celebrations and the atmosphere among Iran fans?

A: Yeah, it was weird. There might’ve been only 100 Irish fans there and it was basically the noise we were making on the pitch. There was 100,000 Iranians and they were all male — there were no women in the crowd — so you can imagine the noise they were making having lost out on the World Cup finals.

Q: In France in 2009, you wrote about the decision made by senior players to go against Trap’s (Giovanni Trapattoni’s) tactics. How did that come about?

A: It wasn’t really against his tactics. Trap was obviously worried after we didn’t play very well in the first leg and didn’t want to go too gung-ho early on. But we just had a feeling within the camp that we couldn’t play like we did in the first leg. We didn’t play to our capabilities, we didn’t show how good we were as a team. Yes, we took his instructions on our shape and set-plays, but there was a real feeling among the camp that we were going to play with freedom, have a proper go and hold nothing back, and that’s what we did.

Q: It was a great performance spoiled, obviously, by the (Thierry) Henry handball…

A: Sometimes the performance goes unnoticed because of what happened in extra-time. People move away from the fact it was one of the best Irish performances I‘ve been involved in. That gets pushed to one side because of what happened.

Q: Do you still have that anger at Henry and the referee?

A: At the time, it was very difficult to take. Like anything, the danger is it’d change you so you have to put it to bed. But it’ll always be there. The whole world was talking about it. You move on in life, but you’ll never forget it.

Q: To return to the good times, you’re a strong advocate for the importance of nights out for team bonding. What’s your favourite memory from those drinking days?

A: Gary Kelly gets a mention in the book. He’d come in from a night out, get out of a taxi and run head first into a hedge, just to get a laugh out of the lads. He’d have his shirt ripped and his face all scraped. Ian Harte was his nephew and he’d go, ‘If it’s good enough for my uncle, it’s good enough for me’, and he’d pile into the hedge after him. We always had a laugh and a great bond between the team. Now, it’s hard to get to know some of the players because you just train together every day and don’t see each other until the next day. That’s just the way the game’s changed with sports science but sometimes people forget what togetherness within a squad can mean on match-day in big pressure moments.

Q: Can Ireland do the business against Denmark?

A: They can. I wouldn’t say any different, even if they were playing Italy. Denmark and Ireland’s squads are very evenly matched. (Christian) Eriksen is their stand-out player and they’re above us in the world rankings, so it’ll be a difficult game but it’s a draw that’s doable. It’s going to be two very close games but I feel we have enough to beat them.

Q: You’re getting used to life as a fan. What are your plans for watching the two games?

A: I’m actually doing book signings in Limerick and Galway on Saturday and I’ve a late flight back, maybe 10 o’clock out, so I’m just hoping I’ll get to watch it in Dublin Airport. Tuesday, I’m going to watch it at home. The last home game, I’d my son standing up in the living room when the national anthem was on, so it’ll be more of the same.

Q: Finally, have you made a decision on your own future? I’ve heard you were considering India…

A: Yeah, I’ve had a few different clubs show some interest and, being honest, they didn’t jump off the page. I wasn’t excited about what was on the table, not from a money point of view, just from a playing point of view or a back-up (goalie) point of view. I’m not officially retired. I’ve just not been involved at a club this season. I don’t know what my future holds. If I don’t play this season, I’d imagine I’ll be finished. At the minute, I’m doing TV and radio, and that’s going well, so hopefully I’ll keep improving on that front.

Shay: Any Given Saturday has been shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Sports Book

of the Year Award.

Published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media, it is priced €18.99 and is on sale now.

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