The announcement when it finally arrived felt like nothing more than a footnote.
The Irish public, who had tuned in to watch the homecoming of the country’s successful Olympians, were informed at the end of the Nine O’ Clock news that “The Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given has announced his retirement from international football. Given is the country’s most capped player with 125 caps and made his debut in 1996. He announced the decision on Twitter.”
Short and sharp. Brutal almost. Timing can be everything in sport, and sure enough Given’s announcement coinciding with the wild celebrations elsewhere felt like the cruellest of juxtapositions. It was not supposed to end like this.
The decision will have come as little surprise to many, the 36-year old finally deciding enough was enough. Having endured a nightmarish Euro 2012 campaign, he sadly received the most intense criticism of his entire Ireland career. For many, Given’s poor form epitomised the Irish debacle in Poland- a dependable stalwart going to pieces at precisely the most important moment.
Still, only the most fickle of supporters will remember him that way. Few supporters could have hoped for better upon seeing Given on his debut at Lansdowne Road in March 1996. That was the beginning of a remarkable journey for the Donegal native, who would eventually surpass all others as Ireland’s most capped player.
The instances of his heroics are too numerous to list here, but it is safe to say that Given kept the wolves from the door during an era in which Irish defences have been rather welcoming to opposition attacks. At times it felt like he was alone was our only buffer against ignominy.
There was the heroic performance against the Dutch in 2001; that wonderful save from Zidane in 2006; and most recently his stirring performance in repelling a Russian onslaught in Moscow in 2011.
Widely held by Irish supporters to be the most under-rated goalkeeper in the Premier League, Given did have his detractors across the water. Managers at the top clubs repeatedly eschewed the opportunity to secure his signature, when it appeared to many as if he was a perfect fit. As the years have worn on, perhaps we have seen why.
One accusation has been that as a goalkeeper, Given rarely commanded his back four in a manner befitting a top goalkeeper. Similarly, his disinclination to come for crosses meant greater strain on those in front of him. In addition, many believed his distribution was below the required standard.
A succinct scouting report from Andre Villas Boas, assessing Given’s time at Newcastle would appear to highlight his weaknesses. It reads “Given is highly inconsistent. Second balls from crosses and from shots are frequent so it’s important the opposition striker follows through and believes.” Villas Boas goes on to recommend that Given should be targeted from crosses. Similarly Arsene Wenger remained unconvinced, serially passing up the opportunity to sign Given, despite a series of crises in his position.
Of course for all those complaints, Given was able to offset his shortcomings with a panther like agility and reflexes which frequently left opposition fans and strikers shaking their heads in disbelief. His place as one of the great shot-stoppers of his era should be beyond dispute. Yet there remains the feeling that he never truly hit the heights we expected.
When it seemed his time had come, Given’s big move to Manchester City turned sour, as Joe Hart emerged to usurp him as the clubs number one. It is a testament to Given’s humility that he has since acknowledged that that indeed was the right decision.
Thereafter, a move to Aston Villa transpired, where injuries and managerial uncertainty have made it a frustrating couple of years. That frustration should have eased in the build- up to Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign, yet the silver lining quickly turned to a lightning rod, as Given became something of a fall guy in the wake of an inept team performance in Poland.
Sadly, it was most likely his enthusiasm to don the green jersey that ultimately proved his undoing. Most observers will have noted that Given was far from the peak of his physical prowess in Poland, owing most likely to a rushed recovery programme in the run-up to the tournament.
And so sadly, the denouement of a hugely distinguished international career was a chastening experience on the biggest stage of all, and a couple of lines to acknowledge its passing on The Nine O’ Clock News.
The worst that can ever be said of Given is that he never quite made it to the top of the goalkeeping pile. But in an era when preserving a club career seems to be prioritised above the international stage, Given has shown steadfast and unwavering commitment to the cause. For Irish fans, he may well take his place as the greatest ever to wear the number one shirt. He may never have had that Packie Bonner moment to savour, but he is someone who can proudly claim to have reinvigorated the notion of “international duty”.