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Shay Given Exclusive: “I just want to play football again”

Shay Given
BY CHRIS MCNULTY
c.mcnulty@donegalnews.com

THE early morning drive into Bodymoor Heath, Aston Villa’s training ground, seems like a chore these days for Shay Given.

On the roads into Fazeley, the small town that houses Villa’s training facility, Given must wonder how it has come to this: At 37 and after 440 Premier League appearances over the last 17 years, the Liffordman has found himself in Limboland.

Frozen out at Villa, with number one Brad Guzan being joined by Jed Steer from Norwich this summer, Given is in desperate search of first team football again. He hasn’t played a game in the Premier League since Villa’s 3-1 defeat by Everton in August 2012, with his last competitive game the FA Cup defeat by Millwall in January.

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The autumn came and went without Given finding solace. Proposed moves to Liverpool and Doncaster Rovers were mooted, but nothing became of either. Given now has January encircled on the calendar. The lonely mornings now are spent with January in mind.

“Ideally I’d get a move in January and get back playing again, or something could happen at Aston Villa to get me back into the team,” he says.

“You just don’t know in football; things can change quite quickly. I’ve just got to be fit and ready if and when the calls comes, be that here or somewhere else.

“I’d love to be playing and that’s the plan.”

Bar a couple of seasons when Steve Harper was above him in the pecking order, Given had been the number one at Newcastle United, after out-doing Pavel Srnicek and Shaka Hislop at St James’ Park. Given is revered on Tyneside, a legend among the Magpies’ fans. Given has not been used to being a number two, let alone the position he now dwells: third choice at Villa Park.

Given was handed a five-year deal by then Villa manager Alex McLeish with Given having become frustrated after Roberto Mancini preferred Joe Hart as Manchester City’s goalkeeper. His contract doesn’t run out until 2016. Given’s £3m-a-year salary is prohibitive to some but, just like when he took a pay cut to join Villa, the Donegal native’s motive now is not the bank balance.

On joining Villa, Given had said: “When I left home at 16 I didn’t come over to make money. I was following my ambitions to play football. I took a pay cut, yes. But what do you do? Sit there and let your career fizzle out? Or do you kick on again?”

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The same is true now.

No competitive games in nine months and an absence of appearances in the Premier League that is now in its 14th month has become a real source of pain for Given.

When Doncaster’s interest was floated in the summer, some saw it as a slight on the former Republic of Ireland international. Dropping to the Championship, it seems, is a possibility.

“I just want to get playing again, wherever that is,” he says.

Given is open about his state of mind, ‘frustrating’ being the general feeling at the moment.

“It’s not easy because you’re so used to training and working hard for a game this week or a game next week,” he says.

“When there is no game to play, you can sometimes wonder: ‘What are you training for?’

“I basically have to go into training every day, keep the head down and wait until January. It’s not easy. Every professional footballer wants to be playing football. When you’re not playing it’s so frustrating. But that’s the situation I’m in and I’ve just got to keep the head down and hope something comes up in January to get me back playing again.

“You have to keep professional and keep working hard. Something could come out of the blue and you have to be ready for that if it did happen.

“I had a chat for the transfer window, but nothing materialised. I need to get back up to match fitness again and get sharpened up. We’ll see where the winter and spring takes me.”

Given still seems like the giddy schoolboy when he recounts the phonecall in 1996 from Mick McCarthy to inform him that he was being called up to the Republic of Ireland squad. Given made his debut at Lansdowne Road that year.

00053599The subsequent sixteen years saw Given eclipse Packie Bonner as Ireland’s greatest ever goalkeeper. Given played at the World Cup in 2002 and the European Championships in 2012. He kept a remarkable 55 clean sheets for Ireland.

“I still find it hard to believe that I got one cap for Ireland, never mind 125,” he says

“I still remember going up to games from Lifford with my da. If you’d said to me back then that I’d go on to play for Ireland I’d have said you were off your rocker. To get 125 caps was very special.

“I have lots of fond memories of watching Ireland in tournaments over the years. To actually play in those sorts of tournaments were very proud moments.

“You know that the whole country and of course your whole home county is watching on and just willing you to win.”

The footnote, alas, was an inglorious one.

Ten years on from the bittersweet memories of Japan and South Korea in 2002 and with those moments of Saipan and Spain in the Far East still ringing in the mind, Given and the Republic of Ireland once again took to the stage of a major tournament last summer. Given’s howls of anger from late 2009 in Paris on the night of Thierry Henry’s handball were still raw, but the pain was eased a little with a play-off win over Estonia that qualified Ireland for Euro 2012.

Twenty-four years after Euro ‘88, there were no heroics in Poland. Croatia, Spain and Italy swatted Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland aside.

“We knew the group was tough, but we were just outclassed. You can’t make excuses for what happened,” Given says.

“It was difficult to get the head around. Two of the teams in the group ended up in the final and I actually thought Croatia were better than Italy.”

Soon after his return from a post-Euros holiday, Given announced that he was hanging up the gloves on his Republic of Ireland career. The game against Italy in Poznan was cap number 125, then a record until Robbie Keane recently took the baton. It was a far from perfect ending to what had been one of Irish football’s greatest stanzas.

“For a decision like that, you never know when is the right time and when is the wrong time,” Given says.

“Some people will be telling you to stop, others tell you to play on for as long as possible. I wasn’t playing regular first-team football so I didn’t feel as sharp as I should have been to play for Ireland. If I was playing more regularly the decision might have been even tougher because I would probably have felt sharp enough to go on playing. Sometimes you make decisions and you just have to stick by them.

“You start off as a fan and you just revert back to being a fan.”

There were whispers of a return and there was some substance in the background. Now, though, Given, is more pressed with club matters and finding himself some regular football again.

“There was some chance of it, but when you’re not playing regularly I’d have been letting the country down to take a call up. It would have been different ten years ago, as I’d have been sharper. When you get to your late 30s you’ve got to be sharp and got to be on top of your game because those qualifying matches are so important.”

Life on the bench or in the stands might be tough, but you daren’t suggest the word ‘tough’ to Shay Given to describe his situation.

Tough wouldn’t begin to cover the grief the five-year old Shay Given suffered in 1981 when his mother, Agnes, died of lung cancer aged just 41.

Shay has spoken of his memories of visiting his mother in hospital and of opening Christmas presents by her bedside. His ritual on Ireland duty remained constant: He carried a relic to every game, left it in the back of his net and said a quick prayer to his late mother.

Tough, too, could describe his young, formative years ‘spending eight or nine hours a day on my hands and knees’ helping out in the family business growing and then selling vegetables door-to-door. His father Seamus remains in the trade – pass the family home on the Letterkenny road just outside Lifford and you’ll regularly see his stock on sale.

Given keeps a close eye on the Irish team, still containing many of his former team-mates. Late in his international career, he was joined by Seamus Coleman, the young Everton right-back from Killybegs who is right at home at the top level.

“He’s proven that he can cut it,” Given says.

“Seamus is a shining light and he’s been doing fantastic. He’s one of Everton’s best players and he’s got into the Irish team. He’s a real credit to himself. He’s in there on merit and he’s had some great performances for Ireland. He’s a top player.  If he’d gone over earlier, he’d have been in the Irish team even sooner, I suppose. He’s doing fantastic and is a great ambassador.”

Noel King has temporary charge of Ireland for this month’s qualifiers against Germany and Kazakhstan. Trapattoni’s departure in September has opened the door again for Andy Reid, Darron Gibson, Kevin Doyle and Anthony Stokes. With qualification hopes gone, you could argue that the games are dead rubbers. Given would argue otherwise.

“Sometimes when qualification has gone, the players can go out with no pressure and maybe express themselves a bit more.

“They’ll want to go out and show the new manager what they’re about. Whoever is in for the big job will be watching these two games with great interest – and the players will know that. He’ll be watching and taking note of what the players are up to.”

John Delaney, the Football Association of Ireland’s Chief Executive, said this week that interest in the job was high. Martin O’Neill remains favourite on the list – and Given endorses the candidacy of the former Celtic, Villa and Sunderland boss.

“Martin is a very strong candidate for the job,” Given says.

“He’ll be disappointed with how it finished for him at Sunderland and he’ll be keen to get back into management. Sometimes the longer you’re out the harder it is to get back in, but Martin’s Irish, too, which is a big plus. He’s done well as a manager and he’d be a good appointment for Ireland. He’d lift the whole country I think.”

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SHAY ON DONEGAL

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SHAY Given has got to know the Donegal manager Jim McGuinness in the last year. The pair met at Celtic’s Champions League clash with Barcelona at Celtic Park last season. Given got to know McGuinness through Pat Shovelin, the Donegal goalkeeping coach who has spent some time with the former Irish star in England.

“I’ve been in touch a few times,” Given said.

Given has backed McGuinness and Donegal to bounce back from the disappointments of 2013.

He said: “They had a disappointing campaign this year and it was a real battering we took against Mayo. It was a frustrating year being All-Ireland champions and then going into a game like that against Mayo. They’ll be working hard behind the scenes and will be determined to get back to where they were.”

Given spoke to McGuinness in the moments after last year’s All-Ireland final win after phoning Shovelin – and the Liffordman believes that the manager’s association with Celtic will only benefit Donegal. Celtic was Given’s first professional club back in the early 1990s.

He said: “Celtic are a really professional club. They’re playing in the Champions League and Jim will learn so much there that will help and assist the Donegal set-up. Jim’s workload is a bit crazy and he has a busy life, but it’s hard work and dedication that gets success in sport – and no-one works harder than Jim.”

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SHAY ON LIFFORD CELTIC

IT WAS while playing for his hometown club, Lifford Celtic, in an FAI Junior Cup semi-final when he was just fifteen that Celtic spotted the potential in Shay Given.

Lifford lost 1-0 to Neilstown Rangers, but the performance of Given that afternoon in Oriel Park was enough to convince the Celtic scout watching that he’d seen the future.

Given has retained a great affinity with Lifford – and it was to his delight that the club, under Joe McGee’s direction, won the Donegal League Premier Division last season.

“It was great to see Lifford winning the Donegal League,” he said.

“I have great memories of playing for Lifford Celtic myself and met some of my best friends playing for the club. It was great to see them doing well and I was delighted to see them winning the League.”

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