One of the more unexpected stories to develop during the course of the current European Championship qualifying campaign was the return of Shay Given to the Ireland squad last September and his reclaiming of the No. 1 jersey for the vital game against Poland in March. Given’s return to the Irish set-up has coincided with an upturn in his club situation at Aston Villa. He played in all six of Villa’s games on the way to the FA Cup Final, as well as making a few appearances in the latter part of the Premier League season. However, some Ireland fans are dubious as to whether Shay Given is still the right choice for our last line of defence.
Shay celebrated his 39th birthday in April and it is over 19 years since he won his first senior cap under Mick McCarthy. For the majority of those 19 years, the Donegal man remained virtually untouchable as Ireland’s No. 1 and made a habit of putting in heroic performances. Any discussion surrounding the merits or otherwise of Given’s return to the international fold should start with a recognition that he is probably Ireland’s greatest ever goalkeeper. Notwithstanding this, it is hard to deny that Shay’s status as a world class goalkeeper has been in decline over the past three seasons. During this time he has struggled to secure first team football at Villa and was forced to go on loan to Middlesbrough, in the Championship, during the 2013/14 season.
2015 FA Cup Final
In last Saturday’s FA Cup Final Given made some impressive saves to keep Arsenal at bay. The four goals conceded were largely attributable to a combination of Villa’s poor defending and the pressure exerted by Arsenal. Nonetheless, a nagging doubt persists that a younger Shay Given may have done better with one or more of the goals. It is difficult to gauge whether other ‘keepers would have saved the long range shot from Alexis Sanchez or the headed/shouldered effort from Per Mertesacker. The Sanchez goal certainly took a wicked swerve and dip, whilst the Mertesacker goal was at close range. However, Shay’s reaction times and ability to move his feet quickly were unconvincing in both instances.
Criticism of Given’s performance in the Cup Final may seem harsh and it is an unfortunate aspect of football that older players tend to come under closer scrutiny. In contrast, mistakes made by young players tend to be written off and put down as part of the learning curve. In this context it is noteworthy that Given’s poorest piece of goalkeeping in an Ireland jersey was arguably in April 2000 when he conceded an incredibly soft goal in a friendly against Greece at Lansdowne Road. As he was only 24 years of age at the time the mistake was quickly forgotten. With age comes expectation and there is little doubt that perceptions change as players enter the final lap of their careers. Moreover, it is important to recognise that even a Shay Given in decline may offer more to Ireland than the alternatives.
The fact that Martin O’Neill recalled a veteran goalkeeper for the Poland game calls into question the quality of Ireland’s resources in this position. David Forde had established himself as a solid but unspectacular ‘keeper for Ireland. Indeed, Forde’s performances in the away fixtures against Sweden, England and Germany in 2013 were particularly impressive when he demonstrated an excellent repertoire of shot-stopping. Despite this Forde has certain limitations in his game, most notably his kicking and clearances from back passes. This weakness was particularly evident in Trapattoni’s last game in charge against a young Austrian team that pressed the Irish defence and made Forde look decidedly uncomfortable in possession. Forde did little wrong to warrant being dropped for the Poland game. That said his case for regaining the No. 1 jersey is not helped by his club status, given that Millwall were relegated with one of the poorest defensive records in the Championship.
The next alternative is Keiren Westwood, who at 30 years of age is no spring chicken. Westwood has already won 17 caps for Ireland including assured performances in some crucial qualifying games against the likes of Macedonia and Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, the concession of six goals in the disastrous defeat at home to Germany in October 2012, allied to a combination of injuries and lack of first team football prevented Westwood from nailing down the role as Given’s replacement. However, Westwood’s move to Sheffield Wednesday has reignited his career. He played 43 times for the Owls last season and was named in the PFA Championship team of the season. This is an impressive achievement given that Sheffield Wednesday finished 13th in the league. It is worth noting that Westwood is a left-footed ‘keeper which requires some adaptation for defenders when passing the ball back. Whilst this should be a straightforward process for professional footballers, defenders have less time within a national team set-up to familiarise themselves with such a change. Based on form, Westwood would appear to be the obvious choice as Ireland’s net-minder. In measuring his capabilities against those of Given, the only obvious areas he is lagging behind are in experience and leadership.
There is of course a fourth goalkeeping option in the form of Darren Randolph. It was announced last weekend that the Bray man is leaving Birmingham City to join West Ham. Time will tell whether a move to the Premier League works out for him, but it is notable that Randolph has tended to make astute career moves to date. Much like David Forde Randolph has spent the past season behind a struggling defence that leaked a lot of goals in the Championship. To date, he has only made two substitute appearances for Ireland and is very much the fourth choice ‘keeper at present.
Who to Start against Scotland?
If the Irish team to face Scotland was being picked solely on the basis of form and consistency at club level then Keiran Westwood would be the obvious choice to face Scotland. He has sufficient experience at international level to ensure that it would not simply be a case of throwing a rookie into a highly pressurised environment. His selection would also be a vote of confidence with an eye to the future. However, Shay Given is the man in possession of the No. 1 jersey and it is highly likely that he’ll remain in situ for what is likely to be a defining fixture in Martin O’Neill’s tenure. In this regard, O’Neill has already taken a calculated gamble in putting the Donegal man back in the team and it would be counterintuitive to replace him after a single outing. O’Neill is seen as a man of conviction and replacing Given would inevitably create the perception of an unsettled team. Irish fans will hope that it’s a case of the old dog for the long road and that Given’s experience and leadership qualities can drive the team on to a much-needed win over Scotland.
- Author: Alan Hannify