Shay’s place in history is a Given

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Shortly after Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the final whistle at Municipal Stadium Poznan following Italy’s 2-0 win over Ireland at Euro 2012, Shay Given and his Irish teammates did a lap of the pitch to thank Ireland’s supporters.

Shortly after Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir blew the final whistle at Municipal Stadium Poznan following Italy’s 2-0 win over Ireland at Euro 2012, Shay Given and his Irish teammates did a lap of the pitch to thank Ireland’s supporters.

The way Giovanni Trapattoni’s side limped to three defeats wasn’t the quintessentially Irish way, which traditionally encompassed fighting spirit and unbreakable heart but it was those in the stands that kept the stereotype going.

Despite the obvious difference in class when compared with Italy, Spain and Croatia on paper, Ireland weren’t what they might’ve been in Poland and neither was Given.

News eventually broke on Monday that Poznan was Given’s 125th and last cap.

A new chapter will be penned ahead of the World Cup 2014 qualifiers that start next month in Astana in Kazakhstan. And for the first time in 16 years, the chapter will be written without the name of Given - unless in the situation of emergency cover.

As a boy, Given used to head from Lifford with his dad Seamus to support Jack Charlton’s boys in green in the pre-floodlit era at Lansdowne Road, on the Wednesday afternoon kick-offs that sometimes required a day off school to attend. Young Given sometimes got back to Lifford with some of the players’ autographs, picked up at the team hotel on the way home.

Charlton had taken Irish teams to places they had never been before but after 10 years in charge his ageing team were comprehensively beaten 2-0 by Holland at Anfield for the last place at Euro 96.

The ink was barely dry on Mick McCarthy’s new contract in the spring of 1996 when Given, then only 19, was called up to the senior squad for the first time.

The Lifford native was on loan at Roker Park, the old home of Sunderland, from Blackburn Rovers.

Ireland lost 2-0 to Russia with Aleksandr Mostovoi and Igor Kolyvanov scoring the goals but Given still left the ground with a smile etched across his face.

“Making my debut for Ireland is a memory I’ll always treasure,” he says in Ciaran O’Donnell’s Donegal’s Sporting Greats. “I had a big following of family and friends that day - a busload travelled to Dublin. It was the most amazing feeling to stand with my teammates for the national anthem.”

McCarthy needed time to mould a pick ‘n’ mix squad. Despite having the proverbial Macedonia in the 3-2 defeat in Skopje in 1997 and failing to beat sides like Lithuania and Iceland on home turf in the qualifying campaign for the 1998 World Cup, Ireland still made it to a two-legged play-off against Belgium for a place in France.

Denis Irwin’s free-kick was cancelled out by a fine Luc Nilis goal in Dublin on Halloween night, whilst at a damp Heysel Stadium in Brussels in the return, Ray Houghton looped a header to level the aggregate score after Luis Olivera had given Belgium the lead.

However, as the rain fell in sheets, it was the Belgians who clinched their place at the finals after Nilis scored once again for a 3-2 aggregate win. Given was inconsolable leaving the field, crying a river on physio Mick Byrne’s shoulder.

“Having grown up watching the Irish team qualifying and to get so close and to be so young, that’s why I was so upset I suppose,” Given adds. “Distraught.”

At that stage in his career, Given, grappling with both Alan Kelly and Dean Kiely, wasn’t necessarily the Irish No 1. After missing out on Euro 2000 by a whisper, Kelly was McCarthy’s first choice for the opening 2002 World Cup qualifiers - including draws in Amsterdam against Holland and Lisbon when facing Portugal.

Given reclaimed his place the following year, as the series gathered pace. McCarthy’s side were playing attractive football going forward and were solid at the back. The key game was Holland’s visit to Lansdowne Road on the first day of September, 2001.

Roy Keane famously set the tone for the afternoon when he scythed down Marc Overmars with less than a minute played.

But minus the dismissed Gary Kelly and under increased pressure, 10-man Ireland made one incisive upfield break and Stephen Finnan set up Jason McAteer for a famous winner.

With a draw essentially useless for the Dutch and with Ireland riding their luck, Given made a number of important saves as the oranje siege was resisted. That 1-0 win was probably the greatest day at the old stadium, which almost burst at the seams when time was called.

Despite beating Cyprus 4-0 in the final group match Ireland could not overhaul the superior goal difference of the Portuguese, who scored 15 goals in their last three outings.

Given seldom played a poor game for his country - earning 55 clean sheets in the process - but arguably his best performance came in the home leg of the 2002 World Cup play-off against Iran.

Ireland took a 2-0 lead after an Ian Harte penalty and Robbie Keane’s half-volley.

The fire-crackers were alight over Lansdowne Road but had Given to thank for denying Iran a crucial away goal as he made a string of saves, including, as Ballsbridge drew its collective breath, a fine smother in a one-on-one to denial of Ali Karim.

Given’s heroics in Dublin meant Ireland had a place in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.

At the squad’s pre-tournament training base at Saipan in the western Pacific Ocean, Roy Keane and McCarthy’s now infamous spat split the nation into some sort of civil war in green jerseys as the skipper, depending on opinion, went home or was sent home.

All the uncertainties of the overshadowed preparations were obvious in the Japanese city of Niigata as Patrick M’Boma shot Cameroon into a first half lead in Ireland’s opening fixture.

However, a much improved second half performance saw Matt Holland gain a point for the resurgent Irish and four days later in Ibaraki, Robbie Keane’s injury time equaliser against Germany sent the nation into raptures.

Ireland sealed a last 16 berth following a 3-0 win over Saudi Arabia in Yokohama.

Twenty-six-year-old Given and the Irish team then trekked to Korea, losing out on a spot in the last eight following a brave penalty shoot-out loss to Spain in Suwon following the most dramatic of 1-1 draws.

The Newcastle United goalkeeper, already moving, was inches from Gaizka Mendieta’s decisive penalty but it was the end of the adventure for Given and Ireland, who went home with their heads held high.

“It was a long journey home,” Given recalls. “ I felt we should’ve beaten Spain on the night because we had better chances. Penalties are a bit of a lottery and that night our numbers didn’t come up.

“That World Cup made the headlines after Roy Keane’s premature trip home. A lot has been spoken and written about the incident. For me it was only about playing in the World Cup and no player was going to take that away from me.”

Ireland didn’t progress from there, though. After a couple of losses in the opening 2004 qualifiers, McCarthy was gone and in came Brian Kerr, who had masterminded underage successes.

Euro 2004 was too far from reach after a poor start and Ireland did drag their chances on, before losing out 2-0 in Switzerland in the final fixture.

Kerr’s Ireland then posted a fateful loss in a group of draws in the campaign for World Cup 2006.

A wonderful goal from France’s Thierry Henry that silenced south Dublin was the telling blow in a group that also included Switzerland and Israel.

Kerr’s contract was not renewed and in early 2006 the FAI went for a managerial gamble in the form of Stephen Staunton, the first Irish player ever to reach the 100-cap mark. Eighteen miserable months followed for the team.

Given’s form was unparalleled at the peak of his career, whilst the only other highlight was the temporary switch to Croke Park as Lansdowne Road was tumbled to build the Aviva.

The wily Giovanni Trapattoni was the choice to success Staunton with the Italian having enjoyed a trophy-laden career. If Staunton’s era was simply a shambles, Irish supporters yearned for basic organisation as the necessary foothold to re-establish the nation’s fortunes.

Given, alongside Kevin Kilbane, earned his 100th cap in October 2009 as Ireland rounded off their qualification group with a deadwood scoreless home draw with Montenegro to finish second behind reigning world champions Italy.

A seeded draw meant if Ireland harboured any dreams of reaching the finals in South Africa in 2010, the draw wasn’t kind as they were paired with 2006 runners-up France.

Nicolas Anelka settled a subdued first leg at Croke Park with a goal that deflected in off Sean St Ledger but Ireland’s players then produced the performance of their lives to level the tie thanks to a Robbie Keane goal at the Stade de France four nights’ later.

Then, in the first period of extra-time came one of the most controversial incidents in the history of Irish sport.

“France were awarded a free-kick just inside our half,” Given says. “Henry was on the byline and controlled the ball twice with his left hand and flicked it across to William Gallas, who headed home from close range.

“I couldn’t believe it when the goal was allowed to stand. It was a terrible injustice. People, not just in Ireland but around the world, were shocked at how blatant the handball was.

“Two years of hard work had gone into our campaign. We’d been away from our families, played around Europe and for our fate to be decided in such a cruel and unfair way was extremely hard to accept.”

As the nation wallowed in self pity and the FAI made a public folly in their attempts to secure a Paris replay and a place in South Africa as the 33rd team, the Irish team put their focus on qualifying for Euro 2012.

After losing 3-2 in Dublin to a fluent Russia side, Ireland managed to secure second place in the group behind the side managed by Dick Advocaat thanks to a battle-hardened scoreless draw at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Given had one of his finest games in an Ireland jersey alongside Richard Dunne, whose masterclass was comparable only to that of Paul McGrath in Giants Stadium against Italy in the 1994 World Cup.

This time the draw was favourable and Ireland hammered Estonia 4-0 in the A Le Coq Arena before a routine 1-1 draw in Dublin. Given, as he had against Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan a month beforehand, though, conceded a questionable goal when Konstantin Vassiljev levelled on the night.

Approaching the finals in Poland, Given was just one of a number of Irish players carrying injuries, in his case requiring a knee scan whilst also suffering from a calf strain a fortnight before the competition started.

Ireland went down in all three games in Poland but the supporters refused to let the results damped their spirits.

As the final whistle sounded in Poznan, Given might’ve been considering his international future even then as he saluted the team’s supporters. He was one of them as a boy and now Ireland’s record caps holder will be a supporter again.

“After a lot of thought and consideration, I have made the most difficult decision to retire from international football,” he says.

“It’s been a great honour and privilege to play and on occasion captain the team. I shall remain a huge fan of the team as I have been all my life and I wish them every success for the future.”

Shay Given has been a bloodline of the Irish team for over 16 years and now they must live without him. But he’s saved the team so much the memory bank is certainly full.