In his long and ultimately record-breaking career as an Ireland international, nothing quite underlined the importance with which Shay Given was viewed by his peers than the extraordinary lengths to which the management team were prepared to go in order to get him on the pitch for the European Championship finals this summer.
Alan Kelly, goalkeeping coach and a former Ireland No 1 himself, spoke in Poland about the “less is more” approach that would be required to get the Donegal man’s battered body in optimum shape for the finals.
In the run-up to the opening game against Croatia, Given’s input into training had been hugely restricted by injuries to his knee and calf, not to mention an attack of blisters, yet Kelly summed up the keeper’s always passionate desire to play for his country when he remarked: “Wild horses wouldn’t keep him from being on that pitch.”
Kelly went on: “He’s absolutely unbelievable, like a force of nature. Fortunately, I room with him as well as coaching him, and I say to him, ‘Look at me, I walk funny and my hands are gnarled so let’s just calm down a bit’. From my point of view as a coach, it’s saying, ‘I know what you’re going through, I know what you’ve been through, let’s just rein back’. Sometimes, less is more.”
Unfortunately, less rather than more would also characterise the Irish experience at the Euros, with Given seeing the ball beat him nine times in three games as the team crumbled and failed to garner a single point.
Yet even though the finals marked an unhappy ending to a glittering career in an Irish shirt for the Donegal man, he still pulled off a number of fine saves.
He might have been judged by many to have been at fault for one if not two of Spain’s goals in that 4-0 defeat but a few examples of typically superlative shot-stopping in the same game prevented a trouncing from turning into an embarrassment.
Nor ought it to be forgotten that Given was vital in helping secure qualification points on the rocky road to Poland, not least on that miraculous evening in Moscow when, even if Richard Dunne took most of the plaudits, it still required a truly outstanding save from the keeper in the final 10 minutes to ensure that all Ireland’s heroic defensive work would not go to waste.
The agility and quick reactions Given showed that night were precisely the qualities which had made him such a renowned keeper for Ireland from the time he made his senior debut, also against Russia, way back in 1996.
But the Lifford man was not only held in high esteem in his native land — he is also widely regarded as one of the very best goalkeepers to feature in the Premier League. Aston Villa fans will doubtless be relieved that his retirement announced yesterday applies only to the international scene.
There were few players prouder than Given to play for his country, whose leadership qualities and dependability between the posts made him an iconic figure.
When he went public with the news of his decision to step down on Twitter yesterday, his words carried an undeniably personal and emotional clout.
“After a lot of thought and consideration, I have made the most difficult decision to retire from international football,’’ said the 36-year-old. “It’s been a great honour and privilege to play for Ireland and on occasion captain the team. I shall remain a huge fan of the team as I have been all my life and I wish them every success for the future.’’
The highlights reel of Given’s international career is studded with great saves and game-changing performances for the Republic, not least during his ever-present run through the memorable 2002 World Cup campaign, which was ended only by a penalty shoot-out loss to Spain at the finals in Suwon, South Korea.
Under Giovanni Trapattoni, he was again outstanding in the push for qualification for the World Cup 2010 finals in South Africa, but that campaign too ended in tears for the Irish, Given’s anguished pleading with referee Martin Hansson on the pitch in the Stade de France one of the most indelible images of a night which will always be remembered in the football world for Thierry Henry’s handball that helped set up France’s equaliser.
If there were signs of fallibility creeping into Given’s performances for Ireland in more recent times, that won’t in any way diminish the sense of an era ending as the keeper hangs up his international gloves.
And his decision is bound to cause renewed speculation about the intentions of his fellow senior players Dunne, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, especially since Trapattoni seemed unprepared for the goalkeeper’s announcement yesterday.
As recently as Sunday, the manager was telling reporters in Dublin that he expected all four would be making themselves available for selection for the forthcoming World Cup campaign.
True, Given has said he will remain on standby for deployment in case of an emergency but, realistically, it now falls to Sunderland’s Keiren Westwood, an accomplished netminder in his own right, to step out of a legend’s shadow and make the Irish No 1 shirt his own.
In light of the soaring standards set by Shay Given and, before him, his fellow Donegal man Packie Bonner, Westwood won’t need any reminding he has a hard act to follow.
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