Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shay's Untimely Fall from Grace Signals The End of an Era

Shay looks on after Spain's 4-0 annihilation of Ireland

It was, in the end, inevitable. His inferior performances at the European Championships clearly showcased Given's slow demise as one of the world's finest shot-stoppers and at 6.57 PM on Monday evening he announced his retirement from international football via the medium of Twitter. While it's clear to many Twitter is now densely populated with footballers, nobody predicted Ireland's greatest ever goalkeeper would announce such news in such anti-climatic fashion. Interestingly, it conveys perhaps yet another loss for communication in Trapattoni's eyes. A manager renowned for not forming close bonds with his players, Trapattoni had revealed on Sunday that Given, as well as the trio of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne - all of who's international careers still hang in the balance - would be staying on.

It was clear, though, that during the course of Euro 2012 Given's ability to perform at the highest level was proving an impossible task. As the games wore on the 37-year-olds wear and tear was finally beginning to become evident. Against Croatia, Mario Mandzukic's first header - as Shay lept helplessly to the left of his goal - left him seething, and understandably so. The Croats' third goal, again credited to Mandzukic, cannoned off the post into Given's back, sending the ball over his own line. Again, he was furious.

Fast-forward to Italy ten days later, sandwiched in between a 4-0 annihilation to a rampant Spain, Given was again at fault. His spillage from Antonio Cassano's tame effort that subsequently resulted in Italy's first successful headed effort of EURO 2012 landed Irish fans, and Given, in disbelief. His shattered confidence was laid bare for all to see and it wasn't a pretty sight to see Ireland's most capped player in distress.

In fact, he'd been the driving force behind several mistakes, both for nation and club, of which were scuppered due to it being a 'one-off'. Mistakes duly repeated themselves, 'one-off after 'one-off', all be it not in quick succession, which led to fans believing he was still in his prime. It was only at the European Championships that many came to the realisation that Given had surpassed his zenith and could no longer dine at the big kids table.

This retirement was a long time coming for the 36-year-old hailing from Donegal. As goalkeepers usually tend to outlast their outfield counterparts, Given, nicknamed "Lazarus" at Newcastle because of his powers of recovery, had fortunately outlived his stay in the Irish team, and the majority of Ireland's World Cup squad, providing memorable moments a plenty to leave the turf with and hang up his boots in the knowledge that he gave all he could for Ireland. For a man who plied his trade in between the sticks for over 16 years on an international stage, he merited more recognition than a mere two revered international tournaments - although one as his performance levels dropped considerably. As the FAI appointed some men just out of pure desperation on a reasonably shoe-string priced budget - primarily Steven Staunton, a man who was starved of any previous managerial experience - Given, and indeed the rest of the squad, were made to suffer at the hands of the FAI's errors in judgement. When they finally did hire a man suitable of guiding the nation to qualification, Shay had already entered his final years as a seasoned professional and by that stage it was too late for his talent to truly shine.

There were, as I said, previous signs of his fall from grace. Whilst in the midst of a gripping qualifying campaign for the EURO's late last year, Given was culpable for Armenia's goal at the Aviva Stadium in Ireland's final group fixture and also, at the same venue, for an Estonian goal that denied an Irish victory - both goals which would have never materialised had it been Given three, maybe four, years ago. There was another moment, albeit for his club side, Aston Villa, when Norwich striker, Anthony Pilkington, lined up a free-kick on the edge of the box. With the five-man wall covering the right of Given's goal, and noticing his international teammate slowly inching towards the right, Pilkington fired the ball past a helpless Given and the area where he should have been covering. (In my opinion, and taking into account Given's movement to anticipate a curling effort - and the speed of the ball - that free-kick should have never eluded him. Although that might just be me. Decide for yourself here.) 

But, then again, he was - and sometimes still is - capable of producing performances of the highest standard; most notably, and recently, his heroics in Russia's capital alongside Richard Dunne, a mere nine months before his disenchanting showing in Poland. Alas, while those performances would repeat themselves a couple of years back these days they come seldomly.

Many were grateful for Given's willingness to stay on, despite Ireland's recent shortcomings. He was there from the very start, making his hotly anticipated d├ębut, while plying his trade in the midlands with due to be crowned champions Blackburn - although unable to oust the then current England number one  Tim Flowers - and was thrown in the deep end for Russia's visit in 1996. Mick McCarthy, experimenting with an unfamiliar 3-5-2, had been recently appointed by the FAI to succeed the legendary Jack Charlton and had handed Given his first international cap, as a reward for a string of impressive showings for Sunderland as they stormed to promotion with the 19-year-old in between the sticks. He soon nailed down a place in the national side, with thanks to Packie Bonner's retirement, and had retained it ever since, despite the emergence of fellow international 'keepers Dean Kiely, Paddy Kenny and Kieren Westwood, to name a few.

But, recently, his performances haven't matched the public's expectations and have lacked the cutting edge that the Irish were used to. He's seen as the country's saviour, the one they can rely on when the chips are down, the man who makes the impossible look a great deal easier. Sure, he may be susceptible to the odd lapse - Dion Dublin ring any bells? - but, in the end, he's the man who - along with stalwart Richard Dunne - plays a predominant role in how the Irish defence - 11 clean sheets in 14 games prior to the EURO's - is they way it is, moulded under the tutelage of the wily Giovanni Trapattoni. In a system often referred to as the "Green Cantenaccio", because of Trapattoni's insistence on defensive solidarity, Ireland have prospered hugely and Given has played his part to near-perfection. During EURO 2012 Spain's Xabi Alonso spoke, and in an eloquent manner, about the 'system' which teams, club or international, choose to endorse. While he was obviously referring to Spain and their respective style of play, he claimed that "the issue is not the system, but how you use the system", and with Trapattoni his style of football, while it may be branded 'boring' and 'unadventurous', has reaped the benefits for Ireland and Given, at the base of the system, has been an integral part of it.

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