TWENTY six years after leaving Lifford for his first job as a professional footballer, Shay Given, has been named Donegal Person of the Year.
Without a club since being released by Stoke City last season, Given (41) has yet to officially call time on his career but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been keeping busy.
There is increasing media work – he was on BBC’s Final Score last weekend – while he’s in Letterkenny this evening, Friday, for the launch of this year’s ReadDL initiative.
Macclesfield, a market town in Cheshire, is where Shay now calls home. He lives there with his fiancé Becky Gibson and their two daughters Gracie (2) and Cassie Elsa Given (9 months), whom they named after their grandmothers.
Earlier this week, he took time out from his busy schedule to talk to the Donegal News about his career, one that is strongly associated with the Republic of Ireland and Newcastle, his media work, his family, his love for Donegal and being named Donegal Person of the Year for 2017.
“I might have spent more time away than I’ve lived in Lifford but the lads never let you forget your roots.
“A few years ago a friend gave me a lift home (to Lifford) from Dublin in his helicopter but it didn’t take them long to remind me that when I first left Lifford it was in a link box,” he laughed.
The public was first informed that Shay was the recipient of this year’s award in the Black Door Piano Bar on Harcourt Street in Dublin on Friday, January 19, but he had already known for a few weeks at that stage.
“The committee rang me and asked if it was something that I would be interested in. It’s a great honour. It’s fantastic to get the award and I’m chuffed to be following the likes of Packie (Bonner), Jim (McGuinness) and Daniel O’Donnell.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to travel the world and I always tell people I’m from Donegal. Having a young family means that I don’t get home as often as I would like but I’ll try and change that over the next 12 months,” he said.
Shay will be kept busy these next few weeks preparing for Lifford’s takeover of Dublin on March 3.
“I’ve family living in Germany, Belfast, Donegal and Dublin and I would like to have as many of them in Dublin. It’s a celebration for me personally but also for so many, many people who have been part of my journey,” he said.
That journey started when he joined Celtic at 16 having been spotted playing for his hometown club, Lifford Celtic, in an FAI Junior Cup semi-final against Neilstown Rangers, a game they lost 1-0 in Oriel Park.
Robbie White was manager while ‘Flappy’, ‘Cooper’, ‘Crazy’ and ‘Kipper’ were among his team-mates.
“They all had nick-names but, funny enough, I don’t think I ever had one. I was just a kid and I suppose they were all looking out for me – great memories. ‘Kipper’ Lynch died recently while I still see Michael and Thomas French (Flappy and Cooper) about the odd time,” he said.
Jimmy Phair and Jimmy Gleeson were Shay’s managers at St Columba’s College, Stranorlar, when he played in goal. They reached All Ireland schools finals around that same time.
“Karl Lafferty, the Doherty twins and ‘Rita’ (Shane Bradley) were my team-mates. Good craic,” he remembered.
“I was homesick when I first went over and there were days when I found it hard to see the bigger picture that I could go on to become a professional footballer,” he recalled.
“I used to go and watch dad play in goal for Whitestrand every Sunday and then here he was watching me play. It was surreal. He went to most of the Ireland games I played in, home and away. It’s taken a lot of dedication and a few lucky breaks,” he said.
“I’ve played in World Cups, European Championships, the Champions League and the Premier League. I’ve been blessed, especially given the fact that so many lads go across the water only to come back home again a few years later,” he added.
Shay and current Ireland captain Seamus Coleman from Killybegs are among a select few players from Donegal who have gone on to enjoy successful careers cross channel.
Whenever Shay comes home he enjoys nothing better than popping into Bannigan’s for a pint.
“The text goes round that I’m home and we meet up in Bannigan’s and it’s like I’ve never been away. They take the mickey and very quickly you realise that you’re no more special than anyone else. You certainly leave that place well and truly grounded any time you’re home,” he laughed.
Shay has been training with Macclesfield Town this season where he has seen the extremes that exist in professional football.
“Again, it helps you stay grounded. These lads are training as hard as players at the top clubs for only a fraction of the reward.
“I’ve had a few offers from different clubs at different levels but none of them have really jumped out at me. I’m not officially retired yet but..”
The media work has taken centre stage this year and it’s something he’s enjoying. More importantly, the viewers have taken to Shay Given.
“I’ve done interviews throughout my career but it’s different when it’s live television and someone is talking into your ear telling you you’ve 30 seconds to wrap things up. You have to focus more on what you’re saying and then there’s the Donegal accent,” he said.
“I’m just trying to be myself. I don’t want to be cliched. I want to be honest and to call a game as I see it. I don’t want to make headlines just for the sake of making headlines. Honesty is the best policy. It must be a Donegal thing. Sure there’s no lies in Lifford,” he laughed.
Manchester City is his local Premier League team now. Even though he played only 69 times for them between 2009 and 2011, he still lives in the area and goes to games with his 13-year-old son Shayne who is a City fan. His daughter Sienna celebrated her eleventh birthday yesterday, Thursday.
“I really don’t know what the future holds. I’ve done my A and B coaching badges as well as my Goalkeeping A licence but the media work is going well,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to coming to Dublin in early March. It’s an exciting time and I’m delighted that some of the proceeds from the night will be going to a Donegal charity. It’s always nice to give something back,” he said.
What advice would he have for Donegal teenagers who are seeking a career in professional football today?
“While you have to work hard to get across the water, the real work only starts at your new club. So many people think that they’ve made it when they sign for a club but that’s the time when you really have to put your shoulder to the wheel. Nowadays clubs are signing young players from all over the world and it’s definitely getting tougher.
“Young lads at home are at a bit of a disadvantage in that most of them also play GAA but it’s a fantastic sport. It makes us what we are,” he said.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have met Donegal people all over the world. When we were in Japan and Korea (World Cup) it was brilliant to meet people wearing Donegal jerseys and listening to the Donegal accents. They probably had to sell their cars and take out a Credit Union loan to get there but it meant so much to me at the time.
“I’m a proud Donegal man and now I’m honoured and proud to be Donegal Person of the Year. I suppose they’ll have to call me sir but sure everyone is sir in Lifford,” he quipped.
Shay Given will be inaugurated as Donegal Person of the Year 2017 at a gala ball on Saturday, March 3 in The Ballsbridge Hotel, Dublin 4. Tickets are limited so please contact 087 255 4966 or 087 641 9419 to reserve your tickets or contact any committee member.
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Posted: 9:00 am February 3, 2018