50 Grades of Shay

If report-cards were being handed out for the Irish players coming home from Euro 2012, there’d be a few large F’s and plenty of black marks against names. The manager’s comments would fare little better. ‘Must do better’ hardly does it justice. Sadly, our former star pupil Shay Given also seemed to suffer from the class clowns around him.

Given made 50 appearances for Man City before a new manager decided he wasn’t his number one. Does Ireland’s record caps holder face a similar outcome for his country?

His performances in Poland were far below his usual impeccably high standards with some uncharacteristic mistakes. Some will say he wasn’t fully fit while others have questioned if he too should be included in a clear-out of the old guard.

When a team concedes nine goals in three games, it’s inevitable fingers will be pointed at the goalkeeper. The criticism is probably over the top, but Given must also seek redemption when our World Cup odyssey begins in September.

When Shay spent an entire season on the bench as Joe Hart stole the limelight for Man City, every Irish fan felt it was only a matter of time before he was snapped up by another Premier League club.

He finally escaped his Eastlands nightmare when he was brought to Villa Park by Alex McLeish to join a growing list of Irish players at the club such as Richard Dunne, Ciaran Clark, and Stephen Ireland. Signed for £3.5 million, Shay made 32 appearances last season.

With the new campaign just around the corner, new Villa boss Paul Lambert has been talking up Given’s understudy Brad Guzan in a move that is sure to heap further pressure on the Donegalman.

Now 36 years of age, Given spent almost 12 years at Newcastle where he forged a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League. Some felt it was too long playing behind a, at times mediocre, defence. The only thing to show from his time on Tyneside was an InterToto Cup medal, two FA Cup runners-up medals and a run in the Champions League.

Given began his professional career at Celtic but moved on a free transfer to Blackburn Rovers in 1994. Successful loan periods followed at Swindon and Sunderland as the Mackems stormed to the Division One title. However, it was his move to St. James’ Park that cemented his reputation as one of the finest goalkeepers in the top flight.

The Magpies were relegated in the 2008-9 season but not before Given secured a move to Manchester City in the January transfer window. Fifty appearances followed but in that time, he was frustratingly dumped to the bench. England’s number one Joe Hart kept Ireland’s number one out of action for practically a full season. Aston Villa was his way out and he put in some stand-out displays last year as the Birmingham side narrowly avoided relegation.

Despite criticism aimed at him during the European Championship, Given has received the backing of Villa’s goalkeeping coach Terry Gennoe: “You won’t find a more dedicated, professional keeper anywhere. If everybody was as professional as he is in football then it would be a better game for it. You wouldn’t believe the nth degree he goes to in everything — nutrition, the way he lives, the kind of training. He takes every route necessary to make sure he’s as good as possible.”

He’s not getting any younger and the man himself would say he made surprising errors in Poland. In the opening game against Croatia, Irish fans were shocked to see Mario Mandzukic’s soft header from all of 12 yards nestle in the net. When the criticism rains, just as the heavens opened in Poznan, it pours. Given could do little with Jelavic’s second for Croatia but suggestions that the third was an own-goal off the shot-stopper are harsh in the extreme.

From there, it was Gdansk and Spain. Perhaps a fully-fit Given could have stopped Torres’ first when the Spaniard’s bullet almost took the ‘keeper’s head off. The second by Silva when he led the defence a merry dance was an exquisite finish. Given was helpless. Torres’ grabbed another with a perfectly placed shot to the ‘keeper’s left under pressure from Dunne while the fourth from Fabregas was unstoppable.

The accumulation of the negative press from the Croatia and Italy games has clouded over the string of spectacular stops Given pulled off against the Spanish. Were it not for him, Ireland could have been looking at humiliation on a larger scale.

However, it was his blunder that led to the corner from which Italy scored the first in our final game in Poznan. He’s correct in saying many more things had to happen before the ball ended up in the net. The defensive rock on which qualification was built with little or no goals conceded was obliterated in Poland and sadly, as the last man standing, Given is bearing the brunt.

New club manager Paul Lambert’s attempt to ingratiate himself to his new players by bigging up goalkeeping number 2 Guzan, only adds to the pressure on Given.

At 36, most people say goalkeepers are in their prime. On the other hand, and David Seaman is a case in point, some high-profile mistakes on the world stage, can make a shot-stopper look old beyond his years.

We don’t yet know if Ireland’s record caps-holder has decided to hang up his international boots. We’d imagine Giovanni Trapattoni will attempt to talk him out of it. It’s isn’t long ago that the Italian was talking up the chances of his custodian playing in Serie A.

A week before Euro 2012, every Irish fan said our hopes depended on Given. In the weeks after the tournament, our faith in him has been tested. He has bounced back from adversity throughout his career. As he has done so often in the past, we hope Given can drag Ireland back with him.

 

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