Shay Given down by the Riverside and back playing with a smile on his face
After 10 months on the sidelines former Ireland keeper is back in action
Up in the far corner, the 386 fans from faraway Brighton celebrated; down on the pitch Shay Given shook hands with officials, opponents and, head down, made for the home dressing room. The Riverside Stadium, some way short of half-full, emptied silently. It was gloomy but the gloom was not just meteorological. “Merry Christmas from all at MFC,” said the man over the Tannoy.
For the fifth time in their last nine games, Middlesbrough had lost. Two of the others had been draws. Eight points from 27. Middlesbrough are staggering into Christmas.
And for the third game in a row, the blow came late. Matthew Upson’s fortunate winner for Brighton came in the 86th minute.
The week before Middlesbrough had led 2-1 at Birmingham City until four minutes into injury-time. The previous match, at improving Derby County, had seen 10-man Middlesbrough hold onto 1-1 until Connor Sammon struck for Derby in the 90th minute.
Brighton’s goal came from a corner, as did Birmingham’s. Middlesbrough had 10 corners of their own last Saturday. But no goal.
“Of course I’m angry,” said manager of 31 days, Aitor Karanka. There were double sessions for the players this week. Another comment came from midfielder Jacob Butterfield: it was that Middlesbrough are too good to go down. Teesside grimaced.
That notion receives a public test this evening when, live on TV (Sky Sports 1, 5.30), Middlesbrough travel to Millwall. It’s a place of note to on-loan Given: it is where he played his last game to date for Aston Villa, in January in the FA Cup. Villa lost 2-1. Millwall’s winner came in the 89th minute. He’ll also be facing Ireland’s current number one in David Forde.
Given departed the Riverside last Saturday without speaking. By midweek he was better. But were these late goals not a reminder of familiar agonies? Would you, at 37, not question things?
“Not really,” Given says. “I missed the whole match-day buzz and I even missed the disappointment. It is not something I’ve had for a while. Just being part of the game again means something to me.
“It’s 10 months since I had those feelings. Those were a bad few days for us in January. We’d just been knocked out of the League Cup semi-final by Bradford and then by Millwall in the FA Cup. Those were probably the worst four days of the season for the club.
“And such a late goal at Millwall. The manager [Paul Lambert] was going ballistic afterwards and rightly so. What it meant for me personally dawned straightaway. I knew I wasn’t part of Villa’s league plans. So these games, at least I was playing.”
Once those games were decided, though, Given knew the limit of his day and his week: training. He has 2½ years left on his contract at Villa Park and does not wish to resume that routine. He has no gripe with Lambert and refuses to rule out ever playing for Villa again. But, perhaps particularly frustrating for a goalkeeper, it’s out of his hands.
There may be options next month. Liverpool’s interest in August was sincere, Swansea City may be looking for a goalkeeper soon. There are other Premier League clubs with goalkeeping issues but even when pushed, Given steps back from predicting the future.
“I’m just glad to be playing,” he says. “When you’ve been out for 10 months it can prey on your mind. Mentally you’re wondering if you can still play at a high level.
Never been away
“But I came back into the first [Middlesbrough] game and it was as if I’d never been away. It was that simple. That made me feel I’ve got time left. You doubt yourself when you’ve been out for so long. But I’ve not found playing an issue.
“This loan runs out on January 1st, which is Bolton away. Then it’s the FA Cup and I don’t think Villa would let me play in that. I’m just guessing, but my loan is up anyway. It’s in Villa’s hands but things change quickly: what if Brad [Guzan] got injured?
“I’ve been professional, trained hard, I wouldn’t say I’d never play for Villa again. Of course I’d love to play for Villa again. But Brad’s fit, athletic. There’s been no need for it. But I’ve not ruled that out, no.”
Nor has he ruled out an Ireland return, though it’s in the distance.
On Thursday Martin O’Neill said he would at some point speak to Given. The man with 125 caps replied in kind.
“I’ve not spoken to Martin,” Given says. “We’ve met a few times in the past. But here we are today, not yet Christmas and the first competitive Ireland game is not for eight months. That’s a long, long time. A lot can happen. But of course, if Martin wants to speak to me then, then of course I will.
“But he might not. If I’m not playing I don’t have an argument. Who knows where I’ll be next September?”
What Given knows is that today he will be at Millwall and that Middlesbrough are three points off relegation. He also knows he is back in the thick of it.
“Middlesbrough are a Premier League club in all but name. But the table doesn’t lie. We’re in a sticky position. It’s important that we get results over the Christmas period. You’ve seen in the past – Leeds – it’s easy to slip down the divisions. Middlesbrough aren’t too big to go down again.
We’ve got to be very careful, it’s up the players to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Shay Given smiles. He’s a player again.