The veteran Aston Villa goalkeeper has returned to the Boys in Green panel for the first time since his retirement in 2012 but it is a development which highlights lack of talent
By Ryan Kelly
In February 2014, Martin O'Neill spoke positively on the prospective involvement of Shay Given in future Republic of Ireland international games. Despite making the decision to end his international career after the Irish immolation at Euro 2012 – where Given conceded nine goals in three games – the veteran goalkeeper had declared a renewed desire to be involved with the Boys in Green, and O'Neill was receptive to the idea.
"He's got an enthusiasm for the game back and I will monitor the situation," the former Celtic boss said. "When the games come round, I would like to be picking the best players and the ones who are in form at that time."
At that particular time, Given had been enjoying a new lease of life on loan at Middlesbrough following a demoralising period of abject stagnation at Aston Villa, where he had become second-choice goalkeeper, falling behind Brad Guzan. The Donegal native was demonstrating that he remained as capable a custodian as ever and, as such, talk of a return was not at all out of place. However, unfortunately for Given, the loan spell was relatively short-lived and he soon returned to Villa Park, where he has endured life as a back-up goalkeeper since.
And, perhaps, it is chiefly for this reason that his return to the Ireland fold has been met with surprise.
Certainly, on the international scene, the list of viable alternatives has grown considerably. David Forde has blossomed since Given's retirement, emerging as the unlikely heir to the number one shirt. Keiren Westwood is playing regularly once more after swapping Sunderland for Sheffield Wednesday, while Newcastle's Rob Elliot and Birmingham City's Darren Randolph are able deputies. Stephen Henderson, who is now plying his trade with Charlton Athletic, is another possible consideration. Crucially, with the sole exception of Elliot, the aforementioned individuals are competing regularly for their clubs.
Given has not been involved in any of Ireland's five friendly games since O'Neill's pronouncement in February. Indeed, the 38-year-old had not even been named in the extended panel for the games against Oman and Georgia, a panel which included no less than four goalkeepers, before his surprise inclusion in the reduced squad. So the decision to include him now, as Ireland prepare to embark on their Euro 2016 qualification campaign, is an altogether curious one.
Arguably, the retirement of Richard Dunne has had a bearing on matters. When one casts a glance over O'Neill's defensive options in the latest squad, John O'Shea stands alone in terms of boasting experience. The combined caps tally of Richard Keogh, Joey O'Brien, Alex Pearce, Marc Wilson, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Ward amounts to 77 – 19 less than that of the Sunderland defender. The gradual loss of elder statesmen such Dunne and Damien Duff has produced a deficit which the addition of Given is probably intended to ameliorate.
Nevertheless, there is an air of desperation surrounding the entire affair, the root of which appears to be Martin O'Neill's difficulty in locating highly talented players with whom to pack his squads with. He expressed the concern back in February.
"The idea that I had, that maybe some young 17-year-old would come through and be absolutely brilliant for us in the next couple of months, I haven't exactly seen that," said O'Neill, announcing a familiar squad for the game against Serbia. "Of course there's time, like anything else."
But the problem is that time is running out; the games must go on, starting with Georgia next week.
Instead of coaxing the next generation through, the Ireland boss has shown incredible conservatism, and in calling upon an Aston Villa reserve goalkeeper who is closing in on 40 years of age, there is a danger that such desperation will filter down to the players. What must the likes of Forde, Westwood and Elliot think? The implication of Given's inclusion is that the current options are not sufficient, and that is hardly something that will instil confidence in players, supporters, or indeed, the FAI.