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Shay Given at 40: Why the Ireland goalkeeping legend must go to the Euros

The Donegal native celebrates his birthday this week.

Shay Given made his Premier League debut for Stoke on Monday night.
Shay Given made his Premier League debut for Stoke on Monday night.
Image: Nick Potts

Updated at 19.31

FOR SOMEONE WHO is arguably the best goalkeeper Ireland have ever produced, Shay Given tends to receive an awful lot of criticism.

No other Irish net-minder has excelled in the Premier League so consistently over the years. Given has made over 20 Premier League appearances in 12 respective seasons since making his debut for Blackburn in the 1996-97 campaign.

Of the Irish players currently active, only Robbie Keane (143) has more caps than Given’s 133.

If he appears at Euro 2016 this summer, he will equal the record of Packie Bonner — Ireland’s only other genuine contender for best-ever goalkeeper — having featured in three major tournaments.

And speaking of major tournaments, Euro 2012 is often used as a stick to beat Given with, after the goalkeeper allegedly played while having an injury. But even if this is true, Given won’t be the first or the last footballer to play through the pain barrier in order to compete at the highest level. Jason McAteer did the same at the 2002 World Cup. Roy Keane did so several times for both club and country. Sure, Given didn’t play particularly well during that competition, but the same can be said of virtually every Irish player who took to the field during that disastrous summer. To use the Donegal native as a scapegoat for the team’s failings is unfair.

Moreover, on Monday night, it was confirmed that Given had won his place back in the Stoke team, thereby enabling the veteran to add to his incredible 400-plus Premier League appearances.

Yet despite all he has achieved at club and international level, like Keane, Given often tends to attract criticism from supporters.

One of the main issues with Given over the years has arisen from the perception that he is obsessed with winning caps for Ireland, and consequently prevents younger goalkeepers from getting a chance.

Irish assistant boss Roy Keane is undoubtedly partially responsible for this level of ill-feeling towards Given. Keane once infamously claimed that Given was extending his career at international level “just to get a pat on the back and because he wants to get 200 caps”. The obvious response, particularly in an era in which the commitment of players to their countries is continually questioned, is why it should be considered wrong for a player to appear as often as possible at international level. If younger players need to be tried, then it’s surely the responsibility of the manager rather than Given to rectify the problem.

Republic of Ireland v Switzerland - International Friendly - Aviva Stadium

However, Keane appears to have since changed his mind on Given, as the goalkeeper recently claimed the Corkonian played a vital role in getting him back in favour both for Villa and Ireland.

And if Keane was guilty of underestimating the Donegal stopper, perhaps the Irish public are too.

Many have suggested that Given should not make the squad for the Euros, but surely the goalkeeper’s experience, leadership qualities and the general respect he commands would be invaluable assets to the team.

Granted, Darren Randolph and Keiren Westwood have both had better seasons than Given at club level, but the goalkeeper deserves to travel as third choice for more than just sentimental reasons.

Speaking to The42 last year, Packie Bonner recalled his World Cup 94 nightmare, when he let a routine Wim Jonk shot slip through his hands in the last-16 defeat to Holland.

“You need someone who can talk to you and mentor you in the right manner. Whether it’s a psychologist or a good friend or somebody who knows you inside out. Somebody who knows how you tick and is there for you — for me, that was crucial.

The other difference between 1994 and 1990 was that (former Ireland goalkeeper) Gerry Peyton was no longer there. Gerry would have been that kind of guy that you could talk to. Not taking anything away from Alan (Kelly). He’s a really good tutor now, but he was a younger guy coming in, starting his career. If he was in the team, I would have done what Gerry did for me.

“Roles were reversed and you missed Gerry from that perspective. When you room with somebody for six weeks in a World Cup, you have to build up a relationship. That relationship is about more than just being out on the pitch training. So I did miss Gerry for a period.”

As Bonner illustrates, the role of a reserve goalkeeper in high-pressure situations cannot be underestimated. Statistics from down through the years show that it’s very rare for a third-choice stopper to get any game time at major tournaments, and if Given turned out to be an anomaly in this regard, he would surely be well capable of performing to the necessary standard.

Yet as in the Bonner example above, Given will almost certainly be needed more as a voice in the dressing room and as someone who can serve as a mentor-like figure to Randolph, just as Peyton did for Bonner.

Back in 2014, just after the World Cup, Roy Keane was asked why he had dismissed England’s chances before the tournament — a prediction that turned out to be correct as they exited Brazil at the group stages.

“I said England would struggle but that’s not football knowledge, that’s just common sense,” Keane said, on reflection.

“If I look at the England squad and the players then a lot of them still lack vital experience. Whether it’s Champions League experience or big-game experience.

A lot of those players are yet to win a trophy and yet people still expect them to go to the World Cup and reach the quarters or semi-finals.

“People are ranting and raving about the younger players — they still have a lot to do. We can argue all day about winter breaks and all the rest of it, but the fact is they should have done better.”

This idea of teams needing players with “big-game experience” is clearly a key component of Keane’s philosophy on the game.

Given, having played played in the World Cup, the Champions League and at a high level in the Premier League for years, is undoubtedly one such player with the credentials Keane is looking for. Consequently, it would be a major surprise if he does not make the plane to France, with the ex-Man United star likely to have a big say in the squad selection process.

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Paul Fennessy

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