A slice of Premier League genius: Shay Given

Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a number one who keepered like God intended.

It is admittedly a very odd thing to say about a goalkeeper who played just shy of 500 times in the top flight, made 134 appearances for his country, and was twice included in the PFA Team of the Year but Shay Given was a player with a fault-line that ran throughout his entire career.

The flaw in question – that Given never really addressed right up until his retirement in 2016 – was a reluctance to leave his line and thus dominate his box. Maybe this was due to his smallish stature as a kid, leading to a lifelong habit that became ingrained in him. But whatever the reason for it was, it resulted in two completely polarised consequences.

The first repercussion was that the Irishman never got to play for a top tier elite club – a Manchester United or Arsenal – because to win titles you did need a number one with an intimidating presence who would command his area like a beast and gobble up crosses. A Lehmann say or a Schmiechel.  This is a shame because in terms of pure ability Given was easily one of the top three goalkeepers in the Premier League for at least a decade. Instead he played for Newcastle an impossibly long time then Manchester City for a short spell before downgrading to Aston Villa and Stoke.

The subsequent reckoning however was that at Newcastle in particular he was loved not in the traditional manner that goalkeepers usually are – with a kind of detached admiration and, if they are really good, a gratitude – but as a hero. He was adored like a striker is adored. He was Shay.

Why was this? Again it comes down to his predilection to remain on his line because by doing so it necessitated that Given was a reactive keeper rather than one that prevented danger at source. He was then a shot-stopper; an agile, sometimes acrobatic and occasionally spectacular flinger of body and twister of back and stretcher of finger. He was box-office, relying on razor-sharp reflexes and finely tuned wiles and what is more he was a purist. Come at me. Let’s see what you’ve got. I’ll put everything I have on the line to keep you out.

On countless occasions at St James’ Park they rose as one to acclaim another incredible point-blank stop from their hero. No-one ever paused to consider that if Given had thundered from his six yard line and collected the ball – rather than set himself and allow the striker to get a header in from close range – not only would Newcastle be in possession of the ball but there would be no need to defend a corner after he had somehow tipped that header over the bar.

This all sounds very negative. A slight on a legend. It’s certainly not meant that way and indeed is intended as a plus.

Because frankly who cares if over a highly distinguished 23-year career a few points could have been saved here and there with more pro-activism to crosses. Who cares when out-weighing that is an anthology of brilliant, feline stops that stole the breath right out of your body.

To summarize: so many players celebrated in this series are revered because they played professional football with the unrestricted joy of a 5-a-sider. Why shouldn’t that apply to a goalie too?

Shay Given of Newcastle makes a save against Blackburn Rovers 2006/07

It is February 24th 2002. The Magpies are enjoying a fabulous season under the tutorage of Sir Bobby Robson that will see them finish fourth and here they lead Sunderland on Wearside in a ferociously fought derby.

Moments earlier Nikos Dabizas has put the visitors ahead but Sunderland’s will has not been dented: it’s not allowed to be with 48,000 proud Mackems urging them on.

On the left side of the edge of the box the ball falls to Kevin Phillips. He takes a touch and hits a curled effort with pace that is destined for the far corner. It’s the kind of goal he scored time and again. A trademark.

Only this time a hand is flung out and a body is slung. The action is so speeded up its impossible to be certain on first viewing which arm is extended but surely it will be in vain? Such a shot, propelled by such speed and travelling with such accuracy ends up rippling the net. That’s how it always transpired in this vignette. First the thwack, then the ripple, then the celebration.

Not this time though. This time the ball is parried over the ball and the crowd as one put their hands on their heads in utter disbelief.

“What a save,” the commentator wails. This is followed by a ‘well…’ and then silence. Only the very, very best leave a man whose job it is to orate speechless. Shay Given was one of the very, very best.