Shay Given made over 300 appearances for Newcastle. EMPICS Sport

Shay Given's consummate professionalism turned him into Ireland's greatest ever goalkeeper

Ireland’s longest serving player confirmed his retirement from international duty on Thursday.

27 MARCH 1996 was a memorable day in Irish soccer for a number of reasons.

Ireland would play a Russia team that would go on to make little impact at Euro 96 that summer, finding themselves in a tough group that also included Germany and Czech Republic (who would meet again in the final of the tournament), and Italy.

It was Mick McCarthy’s first game as Ireland manager, taking over from the Charlton era — the glory days of two successive World Cup qualifications seemed a distant memory, as an ageing team struggled badly and were well beaten by a talented Dutch side in a Euro ’96 qualification playoff the previous December.

Some players who featured against Russia that day — Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend and John Aldridge to name three — were coming towards the end of their international careers.

Others such as Steve Staunton, Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer would go on to play important roles in the McCarthy era.

The young manager, who had taken the job following a stint as coach of Millwall, saw his Ireland managerial debut get off to an inauspicious start.

McCarthy had a contrasting philosophy to Charlton. He was keen for the Irish side to keep the ball on the ground and play technically good football, while his experimental 3-5-2 formation is a system the previous boss would never have considered.

The transition wasn’t exactly seamless. A lacklustre Irish display saw them lose 2-0. Steve Staunton missed a penalty. And Roy Keane, who Mick McCarthy had handed the captaincy, didn’t exactly lead by example, as he was sent off for a petulant kick out at Omari Tetradze.

The match had few positives from an Irish perspective. Yet, as fans departed Lansdowne Road that day, the one sign of hope was the performance of a then-largely unknown 19-year-old goalkeeper.

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Given would take little time to replace Alan Kelly as Ireland’s permanent first-choice goalkeeper and would more or less retain the position up until his first international retirement after the team’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign.

It wasn’t always easy. In his younger days, Given could be a little error-prone, as was epitomised by his infamous error for a Dion Dublin goal during a November 1997 Premier League game between Newcastle and Coventry.

But he ultimately had the discipline and the work ethic to iron out these errors from his game to become one of the top goalkeepers in football.

Given may not have the endless array of trophies akin to an Iker Casillas or a Gianluigi Buffon, but he certainly had the respect of his peers, making two appearances in the PFA Team of the Year and being named Premier League Goalkeeper of the Noughties by respected football columnist Henry Winter.

For Ireland, his achievements are unparalleled. Given has earned 134 appearances for his country, and his last cap — against Belarus in a pre-Euros warm-up back in May — saw him displace John Giles as Ireland’s longest serving player, becoming the first Irish footballer to represent his country for over 20 years.

During that time, his starring role in the 2002 World Cup was unquestionably the highlight, as he helped the team recover from the disastrous Saipan debacle and put in a highly creditable display following the pre-tournament turmoil.

It was sad that, arguably at his peak, Given was denied a chance to appear at the 2010 World Cup in cruel circumstances, with the Thierry Henry handball incident robbing the Donegal native of a shot at glory.

Yet Given could only be as good as the players in front of him, and his lack of major tournament appearances after 2002 is no poor reflection on him.

He is one of a very select few players over the past two decades that Ireland have produced who could genuinely be described as world class at their peak, and without him, it’s hard to imagine even the sporadic successes that Irish football has enjoyed in that era coming to fruition.

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