Given takes pleasure in success
Twenty eventful months after he sat in the stand of the Amsterdam Arena and wondered to himself whether he really had a future with the Republic of Ireland team, life could be hardly be better for Shay Given, whose current position at the top of Mick McCarthy's goalkeeping order was officially underlined when the Republic's squad numbers were allocated at the end of last week, writes Emmet Malone
Throw in the new five-year deal with Newcastle United he signed on Thursday and the promise of Champions League football next season and you can understand why Lifford's finest is struggling these days not to look just a little too self-satisfied.
Few members of this Republic squad have much to gripe about, but when Given takes a few minutes out to discuss his present situation and starts by remarking "aye, I can't complain", he does with a degree of warmth that is rarely emitted by the majority of his international team-mates.
Even a week ago there was still the minor irritation of his contract talks back at St James' Park hanging over him as he prepared to join up with the Irish panel in Sunderland. But by Thursday things had been resolved and the contract was duly faxed to Dublin where he put to pen to paper shortly after the end of the Nigeria game.
"I'm delighted to have gotten it out of the way," he says. "There's always a bit of hassle with these things before they get done and the talks had been going on for a few weeks, but it's a weight off my mind that it's done and dusted before the World Cup gets started."
The deal makes it possible for the former Celtic and Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper to concentrate entirely on his efforts for the Republic over the coming weeks, knowing now that his long-term future has been safely sorted out.
"I've spent five years there and now this means I'll have another five," he says. "Hopefully I'll be there for the rest of my career. If we keep making the sort of progress we have been then they'll be very good years."
Moving up in the world is, he points out, something of a chicken and egg situation, with success often having to be virtually assured before the big-name players required to assure it can be signed up.
"The fact that we've qualified for the Champions League now, though, should help the gaffer (manager Bobby Robson) to bring in the players we need if we're to keep moving in the right direction and we definitely need to add to what we have if we are going to move on again in the league.
"The season just gone we weren't exactly challenging in the league but we were there for a while. The difference between us and the top three was that when we had a few injuries it hit us hard compared to the likes of Arsenal who could always bring in top-class internationals to fill the gaps when they had problems. You need to have that sort of cover and the competition for places that having a strong squad creates."
There's an irony here: for clubs like Arsenal to make squad systems work they have needed established stars to accept that they are not necessarily going to be regular starters. Given himself has not tended to take being dropped well. He looked inconsolable after the Amsterdam game, when he had not even made the bench.
Similarly, there was an ill-judged transfer request when Steve Harper displaced him for a time at Newcastle, a demand that temporarily cost him the support of the crowd, as Harper was a well-liked local who was seen to deserve his chance after having patiently served his time in the reserves.
The Donegalman has come through it all, however, reclaiming his place in the Republic's team last November for the Finland game and only being rested after performing so strongly in the Premiership that he was named last month in the PFA's prestigious team of the year.
"It's been an amazing turnaround," he says now of the improvement in his fortunes. "I spoke to Packie (Bonner) after that Holland game and told him how gutted I was. He just told me to keep my head down, that I was still young (he was only 24 at the time) and that there was plenty of time for it to come right for me."
Having followed the advice, Given has been reaping the rewards over the last year, comfortably the best of his career. "I still feel I've an awful lot to learn, though. When you look at the likes of David Seaman, who is 38, or Nigel Martyn who's 36, I'm still young. I try to watch other 'keepers and take something from what they do well - (Fabien) Barthez's kicking or the way Seaman never gets rattled under pressure."
For a lot of the lads, though, the next few weeks will be the biggest learning process of our careers," he adds. "It's the first time at a big championships like this for most of us but I think he team has shown that, on our day, we can give absolutely anybody a game. More than anything, we just want to go out and do the whole country proud."