The supporter simply reckoned that such a great goalkeeper deserved to be playing for somebody with a chance of actually winning something. It was a very strange comment for a die-hard to make yet one that has a lot of truth to it. It is about time this particular Irish international was playing for one of Europe’s best teams.
In a season when Arsenal and Manchester United’s Premiership title hopes were effectively undermined by dodgy goalkeeping, and Chelsea’s triumph was partly built on the foundation of Petr Cech’s greatness, it seems ridiculous that a custodian of Given’s quality is still laboring at troubled St. James’ Park. As much as the English media go on and on about the passionate nature of the Newcastle faithful, this remains a club a division or two below the elite three or four. At this juncture in his career, the 29 year-old from Donegal should be knocking around the business end of the Champions’ League not shoring up a bad Premiership outfit.
“Given rarely keeps a clean sheet and he plays behind one of the least reliable defenses in the country,” said Rodney Marsh last week, when naming him among the league’s most unsung heroes, “but the Irishman somehow manages to maintain a remarkably high standard week in week out.”
The lofty standards that Given has maintained during the current campaign, while so many of his team-mates were literally losing their heads around him, are a tribute to both the depth of his professionalism and the size of his talent. Back in January, his heroics alone stood between his team and a terrible hammering by Arsenal, and his performance against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup two months ago may rank among the finest individual displays by any goalkeeper ever in that competition. Having unveiled point-blank save after point-blank save, he ensured his side somehow inveigled a one-nil victory against a team that had thoroughly outperformed them on the day. Nobody realized this more than the Newcastle manager.
“Shay was outstanding on three or four occasions,” said Graeme Souness, “and we have to thank him for being in the next round of the FA Cup.”
That even annexing that greatly-reduced in significance trophy was always just a fantasy for Newcastle sums up their standing in the game just now. In a newspaper article last month, the club’s legendary former striker Malcolm McDonald opined that of the present squad, fans really only wanted two, Given and Alan Shearer, to remain for the inevitable rebuilding job that needs to be undertaken. Notwithstanding that assertion, there has thankfully been a healthy dose of transfer speculation about Given’s next move, something the player himself has tried to quell.
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“I fully expect to still be a Newcastle player next season,” said Given. “I have got two years left on my contract and I want to be here for at least that length of time. It looks as though there are going to be some major changes in the summer. I have not got a clue who we are going to buy, but I think the areas we need to strengthen are obvious.
“The manager already has an idea of the players he wants to bring in and I want to be a part of what he is trying to do. He will bring some new faces in and I am looking forward to joining up with them when we return for pre-season training. I suppose I anticipate a summer of speculation linking me with moves away, but I don’t see it as anything more than paper talk. Unless somebody tells me otherwise, I will be a Newcastle player next season.”
Announcing his intention to see out the final two years of his contract can be read two ways. He’s either being sincere or he’s being politic, telling the fans who regard him, quite justifiably, as the club’s greatest ever keeper exactly what they want to hear before jumping ship at the earliest opportunity. Certainly, his declaration of loyalty didn’t stop the rumors that Souness was trailing Sheffield United and Ireland’s Paddy Kenny in order to have a ready-made replacement once Given is sold. Which begs the question about where he might be headed?
Despite having turned down Manchester United as a 16 year old, Old Trafford looks the most obvious destination. Alex Ferguson must realize that his track record with picking up keepers since the departure of Peter Schmeichel has been so bad that it’s about time he plumped for a known quantity. Given is definitely that. Almost a decade has passed since he went on loan from Blackburn Rovers to Sunderland, and in the course of 17 games, kept 11 clean sheets and helped them clinch promotion. In the interim, he has lived up to every bit of that teenage promise, at club and international level, and according to goalkeeping lore, his best years are ahead.
“I think he is as good as anybody in the world at the minute,” said Pat Jennings, former Northern Ireland international and arguably the best keeper ever to emerge from the island. “He’s not that tall by today’s standards but he’s probably my height so it’s not a problem. Whenever you see how Shay is playing and compared to others now and going back, he’s as good a goalkeeper as any. He has terrific feet and is very agile. I think the Newcastle defense is a bit weak at the moment which means he is getting a lot of attention, but he is just as good behind a strong unit when he’s not busy.”
The mind boggles at how good he could be on a great team. Here’s hoping that this summer, Ferguson or Arsene Wenger may give him that chance.