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'Gary Speed was a huge friend of mine. I never thought he had any issues'

Shay Given speaks to The42 about his late former teammate and his career in football.

Shay Given won 134 caps for Ireland.
Shay Given won 134 caps for Ireland.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

SHAY GIVEN’S NEWLY released autobiography is not a heavy read, but it’s not without moments of poignancy either.

There are plenty of lighter, giggle-inducing episodes in ‘Any Given Saturday,’ such as the recollections of Newcastle United’s annual Secret Santa, in which Temuri Ketsbaia, the talented and occasionally volatile bald-headed midfielder, is the recipient of a hairbrush.

Gary Kelly, the Drogheda-born right-back who won 51 caps for Ireland between 1994 and 2003 also emerges as quite the character, given his unusual penchant for running into hedges on nights out.

“Gary Kelly was just off his head and he’s still off his head,” Given laughs. “I think he’s getting worse as he’s getting older. No, I’ve some great memories of Gary over the years and some of the mad stuff he does. It’s just his personality, he’s bananas.

“I was at his wedding years ago, it was three or four days before I was due to have a knee operation and he was dragging me up (on the dancefloor) to do some Irish jig.

I was hopping on one leg and he was saying ‘ah, you’ll be grand, you’ll be grand’. He’s off his head, like.

“Just to get a laugh out of the lads, he used to go head first into a hedge on a night out.”

These anecdotes sum up the culture of craic that was particularly synonymous with Given’s early days on international duty, when Mick McCarthy hadn’t quite eradicated the craziness that would frequently define trips away during the Jack Charlton era.

Interestingly, the goalkeeping great feels this rather mischievous behaviour has been somewhat lost in the Ireland set-up and in general, amid football’s increasing obsession with relentless professionalism in more recent times.

In the book, he writes: “Despite the odd brighter moment, Euro 2016 did confirm to me one thing that had been evident for a while with Ireland and that was the fact that the old ways of doing things were well and truly gone. (Niall) Quinny would’ve been climbing the walls with boredom and itching to escape through a hotel window if he’d been away with us.”

Given says there are pros and cons to this new era, but you get the sense that he longs for the old days and the shenanigans himself and teammates would occasionally indulge in during various international get togethers.

I came in and started playing for Ireland 21 years ago,” he tells The42. “The game has moved on so much with sports science. As I say in the book, I don’t see any harm in getting a few of the lads together for a few beers and a bit of dinner, just getting them out of the hotel. Sometimes I feel you don’t get to know the person (on international duty these days). You train, then you go back to the hotel. You don’t see the person until training the next day.

“If you get out together even to a restaurant, you always get to know the person better. I always felt that was Ireland’s great strength over the years — the team spirit and the togetherness.

Once, we crossed the white line, we knew about each other’s families and kids, whereas sometimes the more modern players don’t go out and socialise anymore. And I know social media and sports science has changed things, but I still see no harm in the lads getting together for a few quiet beers the odd time.”

Soccer - Ireland v Russia Given pictured during his Ireland debut against Russia on 27 March 1996. Source: EMPICS Sport

From talking to him and reading the book, you get the sense that despite all the success he has enjoyed in the game and the significant financial sums he has undoubtedly accumulated, Given — in a manner not dissimilar to his former international teammate and fellow Donegal native Seamus Coleman — feels more affinity with the ordinary man in the pub than the modern footballer, and the culture of washbags and luxurious cars for young players that have scarcely achieved a fraction of what the former Newcastle star has managed.

In the book, he writes: “I know one Premier League star — and he really is a superstar — who goes to training, returns to his house, which is behind a big set of gates, goes upstairs and plays on his Xbox for the rest of the day. That’s it. He never goes for dinner with his family, never walks the dog, nips out for a pint of milk — nothing. Who wants that?”

“The good thing for people who do buy the book is that it shows the normality of my life,” Given says. “Footballers in general get a lot of bad press, but I know a lot of people who do charity work and I do myself, but just everyday stuff (as well), changing nappies, going to the shops, getting baby food and making dinner for the family.

I’ve never changed and I never will change. It’s just who I am and where I’m from. Having four brothers and three sisters and a great upbringing, all that kind of stuff, it keeps my feet firmly on the ground. I never get too carried away with where I’ve been and what I’ve done. It’s just keeping a level head, which is easy to do with the family I have.”

Of course, if Given seems more down-to-earth than the stereotypical image of a footballer, it’s partly because there have been plenty of moments in his life that put sport into perspective. When he was just four years old, he lost his mum to cancer at the age of just 41.

Chris Brereton, who ghost-wrote (the book) with me, was fantastic,” he says. “He came to my house a couple of times a week, two to three hours a time. He’d sit down, have a chat and have the craic.

“But it’s just trying to remember years ago, people you’ve played with, and even growing up in Ireland, your friends in school. The stuff about my mum was quite emotional, it was good for my dad. My dad doesn’t really speak about my mum and yet he opened up to Chris about it.

The first chapter in the book is very strong and a lot of that is my dad’s memories of the time mum died. I didn’t have loads of memories of course, because I was only four at the time.

“When she died, it probably didn’t hit home until I got a bit older. At 10 or 11, it obviously leaves a big void in your life with your mum not being there.

It’s something you probably never get over, you just have to learn to live with it, maybe it’s a strength in my football career — playing for Ireland and in the Premier League, I’ll maybe say a prayer to her before the game thinking she’s there with me.”

Shay Given with manager Gary Speed Shay Given embraces Gary Speed after an Ireland-Wales game in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A similarly tragic and more recent memory was the passing of his friend and former Newcastle teammate Gary Speed. Given only discovered that Speed had died by suicide hours before the Irish stopper was due to play in goals for Aston Villa away to Swansea in a Sunday afternoon televised Premier League fixture. During the minute’s silence, a tearful Given could not contain his emotions as he considered the shock news.

People think footballers are not humans and they’ve not got everyday problems like everyone else, but we do,” he says. “We do have issues and sometimes men in general don’t like to talk about these issues.

“We put a macho appearance onto everything – ‘everything’s great, everything’s brilliant,’ and of course, everything’s not brilliant, even with footballers. We’ve got different things we have to deal with – depression, suicidal thoughts, or whatever you want to call it.

Gary Speed was a huge friend of mine. I never thought he had any issues in that department. Obviously, he was putting a face on and he did have issues that he didn’t speak to someone about or come out and seek help.

“It’s just so tragic, thinking he’s not going to ring or text me today. I’ve still got his number in my phone. It’s obviously a very sad and very emotional chapter (of the book) as well.”

Yet despite dealing with these occasional dark moments in an unflinching manner, the book is a largely uplifting account of the life of a player that most would agree deserves to be considered Ireland’s greatest ever goalkeeper.

Not many Irish footballers have played alongside stars of the calibre of Alan Shearer, Carlos Tevez, Patrick Vieira and David Silva, nor have the majority had the honour of sharing the same pitch with both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

During a professional career that has spanned 23 years, the Lifford-born goalkeeper has made well over 400 Premier League appearances, winning the FA Cup with Man City in 2011 and twice making it into the PFA Team of the Year (in 2002 and 2006).

Tellingly though, despite his many impressive achievements at club level, it is representing Ireland at the 2002 World Cup that Given singles out as the highlight of his career. In total, he would win 134 caps from his debut on 27 March 1996 against Russia to his final appearance versus Belarus on 31 May 2016, in the process beating John Giles’ record to become Ireland’s longest-serving player by timespan.

Growing up as a fan and knowing what it means to everyone, watching it back on the TV — we used to watch the games in the house and if we’d get a good result, we’d jump in the car and go out in Lifford to celebrate, blowing the horns like we won the World Cup.

“So to actually play in the World Cup finals for your country, I don’t think it gets much better than that. The experience of the whole thing was amazing.”

Source: FAI TV/YouTube

Moreover, Given is not necessarily finished from a playing perspective just yet.

I’ve still been training a couple of days with Macclesfield over in England, just my local team really, keeping fit and doing some gym work with them,” he explains.

“I’ve had a few offers, but nothing that’s really jumped off the page. If something comes up, maybe I’ll have a look at it. There’s a lot of things you have to consider — my family life, the kids being at school. I haven’t said I’m definitely not going to play again, I haven’t said I am definitely going to play. I’m just playing it by ear and if I don’t play by the end of this season, I’d imagine that’ll be the end of it.

People in England might have retired me already, but I haven’t officially retired yet.”

Yet now that his life has calmed down to a degree and he is not playing Premier League football week in week out, Given felt the time was right to open up and tell his story with a considerable level of honesty and humour — qualities that are not always associated with media-savvy modern footballers.

It was kind of now or never,” he says of the book. “I felt if I did it in 10 years, people may not remember me playing football.

“Hopefully, people get to know me a bit better in the book, rather than it just (containing) stuff you could find on the internet.

Games I’ve played, clubs, there’s a bit of a personal touch, growing up in Ireland, losing my mum when I was four, it was emotional stuff.”

‘Any Given Saturday’ is published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media. More info here.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Aware 1800 804848 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 666666 (for under 18s)

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