Inside and outside of football for Shay Given, music has stuck around through the surreal and the spectacular, the down days and the delirium. While the verses have weaved their way through the changing times for the legendary Republic of Ireland goalkeeper, the chorus remains just as it always was and the song never stops for a Donegal son who went all the way.
Two decades representing his national team, 21 Premier League seasons to date, and a stream of moments that put him up in front of thousands and sometimes millions watching on. For club and country, Shay Given has established and solidified a lasting reputation that most could only dream of, though what always remained in the background was application, character, hunger – and music.
From the days back home with Lifford Celtic, when teammates led the post-match victory songs from up on a pub table in Harte’s, to the World Cup playoff battle cry of ‘the Boys in Green’ as the Ireland team drove through Paris in 2009, a rousing tune has been a staple of Shay’s football life. The Newcastle United great still believes fervently in the power of a buoyant team togetherness away from training and games, and that too is tied up in his very footballing roots.
In his experience, the effects of music have been proven capable of swinging in various ways. Shay has recalled, for example, how it added an extra layer of intimidation as he prepared for his top-flight bow as a young Blackburn Rovers keeper getting set to face Wimbledon’s infamous ‘Crazy Gang’ at Selhurst Park, with the home side’s boombox leaving the changing room walls vibrating in the lead-up to kick-off.
It even formed a bizarre backdrop to one of the most explosive episodes in the Irish team’s history, with the blazing ballroom clash in Saipan between manager Mick McCarthy and midfielder Roy Keane at the 2002 World Cup coming moments after the boss had politely asked the band to leave! At its best, though, music was something that lit up the great moments for Shay and those around him; like a warm wave rising up beneath to let him bask in the unity that makes the game what it is.
The ex-Manchester City stopper recalls how it was, in its own way, a fundamental part of the camaraderie the Irish squad ran on throughout his favourite days with the national team.
“Yeah, very much so. I mean we’d play golf and stuff and have a few beers after, so there’d be a few sing-songs in there as well.
“It’s part of our heritage, Irish folk music, and we all think we’re great singers after a few beers! I just think it’s good to have that team spirit.
“We were a really good group of lads together and we enjoyed a few beers together when the time was right as well.”
Shay’s professional career has taken him from his teens in the early-to-mid-90s, serving his apprenticeship at Celtic before Kenny Dalglish brought him to Blackburn, right through into what is now referred to, often pejoratively, as ‘modern football.’ The two-time Premier League PFA Team of the Year keeper has seen the landscape of the game shift somewhat through the years and while he acknowledges that some things have inevitably become instinct over time, plenty of it naturally saddens him.
The values he holds, however, have never wavered, and those ‘unconditionals’ include a burning desire to help carry Ireland to the highest reaches, remaining grounded, and always wanting to do well for his family. When it comes to the latter, he details it with pride and some poignancy in his book, Any Given Saturday, ghost-written by Chris Brereton, which he has been promoting in recent months in various places around the UK and back home.
Within it, he provides a vivid sense of where he’s come from, which is Lifford, County Donegal, despite the story so often being set amongst some well-known footballing characters in Malahide! Shay illustrates how the days working for his dad with his siblings on the market garden shaped him and let him never forget the ‘value of a pound note.’
Along with a strong work ethic, a sing-song or two is never far away back home, as Shay describes.
“I think in Donegal, you go out most weekends and there’ll be live music on in a lot of the bars and stuff. I think you enjoy the atmosphere that brings and probably a lot of the tourists do as well!
“They like the live music, the sing-songs and the craic and stuff.”
As with most players who have enjoyed the kind of longevity in the game that Shay has, he has worked under a canny few managers, with the late and lamented Sir Bobby Robson and the legendary Kenny Dalglish among those he speaks of with the utmost regard and fondness. There have been floods of teammates, too, with some musical sparkle coming courtesy of the likes of trumpet-wielding Newcastle midfielder Nobby Solano and the former Ireland creative talent Andy Reid on guitar, to name but two.
A favourite pastime for many years would see Shay and others go to Alan Shearer’s place in Portugal for rounds of golf and some karaoke-soaked evenings. The Newcastle goal king would let rip with Lionel Richie’s ‘All Night Long,’ while Shay would turn to ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’ by Ronan Keating!
Robbie Keane, meanwhile, had a childhood where his dad would sing in Dublin pubs, so the Irish striking star would never be shy of trying a tune on team nights out. After Ireland secured World Cup qualification away to Iran in 2001 in what remains one of Shay’s favourite ever personal displays, giant frontman and he of the famous ‘disco pants,’ Niall Quinn, had players, fans and press on the plane home singing before they knew it as the beer flowed.
Shay doesn’t speak all too highly of his own vocal range, but he has sung on stage with a Eurovision singer in Mickey Joe Harte, back home in Bannigan’s in Lifford – now not too many can say that! He has an inescapable bond with music that goes back to the beginning, and it led into his early international days when the tape chosen for the team bus would ensure The Wolfe Tones, Paddy Reilly, The Dubliners and U2 could always be counted on to bring some added motivation.
In his career, there’d be many times when the right track was extra fuel to the fire before a big game, but when it comes to Shay’s personal station, it’s generally a less frantic tempo.
“I do like listening to music. I wouldn’t say I really like just one band; obviously I like U2 and all the Irish kind of ones.
“Gavin James is a more recent one and he’s a very good singer. Ed Sheeran is another one I like, so it’s not too heavy, more kind of relaxed.”
On the subject of Gavin James, a Dublin singer-songwriter who last year internationally released his debut album ‘Bitter Pill,’ he is on the list of musicians Shay has bumped into down the years. Also on that exclusive list are U2’s Bono and REM frontman Michael Stipe, a pair Shay enjoyed a chance meeting with in Cannes following the 2002 World Cup.
That one went on for a little while and even saw Shay being asked to offer up his expert opinion on an unreleased song! Aside from that, would celebrities often turn up to wish the Ireland team luck when they were preparing for games during Shay’s international career?
“I’m trying to think…I think Michael Flatley might have been one! He’s obviously not a singer but King of the Riverdance and stuff!
“Then there’s probably been loads of Irish people down through the years from within music, famous singers and that, who you wouldn’t even know were at the stadium for some of our games. Obviously the U2 guys were at some of the games and so that was pretty special.”
We may be in an extended intermission at present but the music hasn’t faded out on Shay’s playing career – not officially anyway. Alongside promoting his aforementioned book and helping raise his two youngest children with fiancée Becky, he has been on the media circuit with appearances on Sky Sports amongst his punditry gigs since leaving Stoke City at the end of last season.
Shay, who stared down Europe’s best in the UEFA Champions League in some heady days for Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle, did this interview as he marked the opening of the new DW Fitness First store in Gateshead’s intu Metrocentre. Back on the field, he spent pre-season with Macclesfield Town, commenting that there is only so much you can do in the gym or on the bike, as he sharpened his fitness and goalkeeping skills while remaining in the summer routine he has known all his adult life.
Speaking of how he’d love the chance to stay in the Premier League, even as a second or third keeper, Shay said he felt fit and strong and like he could do a job for another season. At Macclesfield, who currently lead the fifth-tier Vanarama National League, he took part in some coaching with the keepers, while he also took up a role assisting Paul Lambert while at Aston Villa in 2014.
Also at Macc this summer were two former top-flight defenders in Wes Brown and Alex Bruce, with Shay taking the opportunity to link up with the Moss Rose club as he lives close by and his old Newcastle teammate Steve Watson (now Gateshead boss) was assistant at the time. Silkmen manager John Askey praised the professional nature Shay contributed to while he was around the place, even joking that their best defence in training consisted of him, Brown, Bruce and Watson, and that they just needed a left-back!
Having never played lower than the top flight, apart from loans at Swindon Town, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, was it refreshing for Shay in a sense to go and experience pre-season amongst an entirely different setup?
“Yeah, it was good because it was off the back of 25 years of training every day and stuff, so it had been a big drop not to train. I didn’t train every day with Macclesfield; probably just a couple of days a week.
“Obviously, Steve Watson was the connection, and I’d kind of missed the involvement; the craic and the banter with the lads. I don’t think you’ll ever replace that, but I do a lot of media stuff now and I’ve just brought a book out, so I’ve been really busy with that if I’m being honest.
“I don’t think anything will replace the training, and as you say, there’s a lot more to it than just going to the gym and going on the treadmill; it’s nice to dive around and catch balls still.”
As has been highlighted more and more in recent years, it is no seamless task to shake the habits of a lifetime for footballers approaching the end of their playing careers. For Shay, he has been programmed to report for pre-season every July for over two decades, and while we may yet see him don the gloves again somewhere, he has spoken to old teammates like Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer about approaching what comes next after playing.
When it comes to talking about football, he feels at ease, so you won’t be seeing him diving into the world of business, he says, for example. The Macc Town players meanwhile were always quick to remind him just how often he showed up on their TVs thanks to his media commitments!
That particular world may ultimately have more of a pull than coaching, but being around a strong non-league club this summer, did it enhance Shay’s desire to use what he knows to help improve players?
“Yeah, I think so. Hopefully the lads at Macc respected me for where I played and what level I played at, even though they didn’t say it – they usually just took the mickey out of me really!
“In a good way, though. But in the future if something that was of interest came up then I’d have a look at it.
“I don’t know for definite because people have asked me since I stopped playing, ‘what are you gonna do next?’ and it’s difficult to answer that question. I don’t have a magic answer, but I know Steve Watson really well, obviously, and he’s now come to Gateshead.
“It’s just what level would you be happy to go in at? Also getting that opportunity somewhere as well; it’s never black and white or that clear.
“I’m happy doing all the media stuff; I’m doing a lot of TV work and it’s going really well.”
Shay was simply pivotal in Ireland reaching the 2002 World Cup and the celebrations after they held on that night in Tehran can still be heard today if you listen carefully enough. Of course, the Irish have had to contend with more than their share of near misses over the last couple of decades, but they have been at three tournaments in the last 15 years, with Shay going to all of them.
Number one for Mick McCarthy in 2002 and for Giovanni Trapattoni at Euro 2012, his role in last year’s European Championship in France was admittedly different, as he and Keiren Westwood provided cover and competition for Darren Randolph. As Shay put it, he was ‘half a player, half a fan’ and probably showed that best as he ran on to celebrate when Robbie Brady bagged the winner against Italy to send Martin O’Neill’s charges into the knockout phase and thousands in green wild near Lille.
Shay’s impact in and around football has been genuinely significant. Awarded the Freedom of Donegal in 2006, his place in Premier League history as one of its most accomplished keepers is assured, while his 134 international caps are accompanied by more tales to tell than perhaps even he could remember.
He recalls with a fondness the vital ‘mischief’ Ireland always had on the pitch and how that has sadly seemed to diminish over time. While we wait to see if performers of the game-changing, dazzlingly instinctive ilk of Ray Houghton, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and others will emerge again some time soon, we end this one celebrating exactly that.
Over the last few years on here, each interviewee has been asked for four teammates from their career who they wouldn’t mind lining up with in a 5-a-side game. Their choices do not necessarily need to be the outright best they have ever played with, so the emphasis is on which ones would guarantee fun, entertainment, and of course, a will to win.
Over to you, Mr. Given!
“I’m trying to think who’d be good for it. I’ll go (Alan) Shearer…Robbie Keane.
“So them two can go up front. I need a defender.
“I’ll go with…maybe Richard Dunne? So I’d just need a midfielder?
“It would have to be Roy Keane – he might not bring much fun but he’d bring a good tackle!”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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