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Opinion: The Irish team has lost part of its spine now that Given's gone

The Ireland goalkeeper will be much missed, though we may still not have seen the last of him yet, writes Paul Fennessy.

Shay Given announced his retirement from international football yesterday.
Shay Given announced his retirement from international football yesterday.

OVER THE PAST ten years, only Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne can claim to have as much of an influence on the Irish team as Shay Given.

Given, who announced his retirement yesterday, will undoubtedly be remembered as a terrific servant to Irish football, and surely the greatest goalkeeper to ever wear the green jersey.

While it is sad that in his last matches for his country, he delivered a number of uncharacteristically below-par performances (as, it must be said, did most of his teammates), it is equally pertinent to recall the significant role he played in helping Ireland achieve qualification for the 2012 European Championships – the first time they performed such a feat since Euro 88.

Though he was somewhat overshadowed by Richard Dunne, Given played an equally important role in keeping Russia at bay, for what was arguably the team’s most important and satisfying result of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

Moreover, his importance to the side since making his debut in a friendly against Russia in 1996 should not be underestimated.

He was vital both in the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup and at the tournament proper, helping Ireland secure notable results against teams of the calibre of Holland, Portugal and Germany, with a series of crucial saves.

He had of course long since consolidated his status as an automatic starter, just as Alan Kelly’s international career was drawing to a close and Mick McCarthy’s managerial regime was beginning to pick up momentum.

And normally thereafter, even when Ireland were in turmoil, Given was the one player that could always be relied upon to produce an exceptional performance when needed. Indeed, there was a period during the Brian Kerr/Steve Staunton era where he seemed to have a monopoly on Man of the Match awards.

Yet while his Ireland days were filled with glittering moments, they will perhaps be tinged with regret also.

Largely through no fault of his own, Given was part of squads that suffered no fewer than three playoff losses – against Belguim, Turkey (in which he didn’t actually feature in the starting XI) and France.

Realistically speaking, Ireland were a team in transition that were hardly ready for a major international tournament in the former two instances, so it is the France match that is likely to be recalled as the most galling loss of the three, when Given reflects on his career.

Never one to hide his emotions, he was among the more visibly outraged and incredulous Irish players, amid the officials’ failure to spot Thierry Henry’s blatant, game-changing handball.

The 2010 World Cup would have arrived at the time when Given, in addition to others such as Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, were at the very peaks of their respective careers.

As a consequence, with the possible exception of the undeserved 1-0 loss to Belgium, when some questionable officiating helped scupper the Irish team’s hopes of qualifying for the 1982 World Cup, it’s difficult to think of an occasion that rankles more in the side’s history than their setback in Paris, and so their failure to qualify that night may well end up being the biggest disappointment of Given’s career.

But irrespective of the odd unsavoury occasion, there is no reason why Given shouldn’t look back fondly on his time with Ireland.

After all, he is the current record cap-holder, having made 125 appearances for his country.

And while his eagerness to turn out for Ireland may not have impressed Roy Keane, most football commentators would agree that his level of dedication to the country’s cause was admirable, particularly in an era in which footballers often seem reluctant to bring the enthusiasm they show for their clubs onto the international stage.

Therefore, in many ways, Given truly was a truly special and unique individual.

So with that in mind, how do the Irish side even begin to go about replacing him?

Keiren Westwood currently seems the most obvious and likely candidate to secure the number one jersey in the Aston Villa man’s absence, but significant doubts remain as to whether he is up to the task.

While, like Westwood, Given was not an automatic starter for his club when he took over the goalkeeping responsibilities for Ireland, the former is hardly a young rookie at this stage.

The fact that, at 27 years of age, Westwood continues to struggle to establish himself in the Sunderland first team (coupled with the glaring lack of alternatives for Trap to choose from) should be a serious cause for concern going into the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers.

Nevertheless, in the press release confirming Given’s retirement that was issued yesterday, it was noted that “Given also continued to show his support and dedication to the squad by saying that should there be an emergency, he would happily return to assist with goalkeeping duties.”

Something tells me Trap may well take him up on that offer somewhere down the line.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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