FA Cup final: All about the now for Shay Given

Tim Sherwood and the FA Cup have revitalised Aston Villa – and their veteran second keeper is savouring his Indian summer

The FA Cup semi final win against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium was a breakthrough moment for Given  and Villa. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

The FA Cup semi final win against Liverpool at Wembley Stadium was a breakthrough moment for Given and Villa. Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images


In the car from the train station, it starts. Unintentionally, it’s a bit heavy.

How was Saturday, then?

It is a standard question to put to a footballer on a Monday. It didn’t feel like a forensic examination, it’s not Frost/Nixon.

Yet as soon as the words appeared, so did the cooling realisation that this was a different kind of Monday. It came 48 hours after the scoreline from St Mary’s on England’s south coast read: Southampton 6 Aston Villa 1. And the man in the car is the Aston Villa goalkeeper.

Shay Given blows out his cheeks and says: “Parked it. Moved on.”

Any cliché will do. He is laughing.

When, 20 minutes later, we are sitting down with tea and cake, Given’s tone has changed but the message remains the same: “As a goalkeeper you have to move on quickly, and I have.”

This cannot be as straightforward as it sounds. A fortnight before an FA Cup final, Villa were 5-0 down after 38 minutes at Southampton. It’s a troubling scoreline to have in a build-up to Wembley, although the unforeseen 6-1 hammering was not the only curiosity of an odd day.

On the bus home from the coast, Given explains, Villa’s players listened to the other Premier League results and discovered they were safe from relegation. Losing 6-1, it turns out, didn’t affect the bigger picture.

Tim Sherwood, brought in as Paul Lambet’s replacement in February, had fulfilled his brief. The Villa bus, coach and goalkeeper moved on.

“Personally,” Given says of the 6-1, “I’m looking at it as a bit of a wake-up call for the whole group.

“We’ve been playing well. We could have gone into the final, not over-confident, but with too much confidence. We played well in the semi-final to beat Liverpool but Southampton showed up that we all must be bang on our game. Southampton are a good team but Arsenal are a step up. We have to learn. The cliché is that you learn more from a defeat. Let’s hope so.”

The following weekend, the last of the league season, Villa lost 1-0 at home to relegated Burnley. Given wasn’t even on the bench and Sherwood spoke of a strained groin. But Given will be fit.

Having played Arsenal in the 1998 Cup final, for Newcastle United – and lost – and then found himself omitted by Ruud Gullit for the 1999 final, Given had reason to beware Wembley and FA Cup finals. When he finally got around to collecting a winner’s medal, it was as a Manchester City player in 2011. Given, however, spent the afternoon on the bench watching Joe Hart. It’s a memory, just not a treasured one.

But, he says, April’s semi-final win over Liverpool changed that. It was a breakthrough moment for player and club. A combination of Sherwood and the Cup had revived Villa, who had sagged greyly in Lambert’s last months.

“The whole experience, the new Wembley, not the old one,” Given replies as to what he took from the semi-final.

“For the whole squad it’s so recent. To beat Liverpool. Young players such as Jack Grealish should use that feelgood factor.

“I was on the bench for the Man City [in 2011] but to be playing is just totally different. There’s an edge.

“We stayed in a hotel next door to the stadium. I was stood in my hotel room window staring at it. I saw the Reading fans leave, then Arsenal’s. It was a great sight to see – everyone coming and going, it had a nice feel to it. The whole weekend was a nice feeling, I’d lots of family over and we had a great weekend. Because we won. We were super positive.”

Given, too, has been revived by the Cup. A firm second to Brad Guzan in Lambert’s mind, Given was selected in the Cup. He’s played in all five rounds so far and saw his 39th birthday come along the way.

Then, when relegation fear began to gnaw at Sherwood, he then picked Given ahead of Guzan for two crucial home Premier League matches. Everton and West Ham were beaten. Given looked like the number one again.

“It’s been a carrot for me,” Given says of the Cup. “As we’ve got through each round and I’ve contributed, made saves, that gives you the belief again that you’ve got something to offer.

“It can be a bit numbing at times doing the same thing day after day knowing that you’re not going to be playing. People don’t see that of course. From training on a dull Tuesday morning in October, it’s gone full circle for me. It’s all about now.

“I bump into Aston Villa fans and they’re wishing me well. They were so happy at Wembley. They’ve had a bit heartache. The atmosphere in the quarter-final at Villa Park was special. Just to see the faces, young and old. To be part of that again, I didn’t think I would be. I know my days aren’t long so I’ve to savour these occasions. Sport can be cruel and amazing. The FA Cup would just mean so much.” That reference to longevity was one of a couple. In another, Given mentioned Dino Zoff, who played in the 1982 World Cup final past 40.

“I don’t really think about age,” he says, “I still train like I’m 19. I do more stuff in the gym, more yoga, watch what I eat. That’s one way the game’s moved on, more science. I used to be told not to do weights because you’d get bulky, but now everybody’s doing that. Recovery, supplements. When I was 19, that wasn’t there.”

Does he think about an end?

“I’ve not really thought about a cut-off. I looked at Brad Friedel the other day and he’s just announced his retirement. He’s 44.

“I’ve a year left at Villa, I’ll judge it more then, but at the minute my body feels great. That’s all you can go on. France is the aim. Martin O’Neill might think different but I’d love to be in France. That’d be a way to finish off my Irish career.”

The nods to O’Neill and France act as a reminder that Given has more than merely Arsenal on his plate at the climax of a season. There is the friendly with England, against whom Given has not played, followed by the crunch ties against Scotland in the European Championships.

Of the latter, Given says: “We’re disappointed with how we played in Glasgow. We think we’re better than that.”

And hope is derived from the second half against Poland.

“It was special to get that last-minute goal. In the first half we didn’t play that well and Martin had a good bit to say at half-time. He got us going. It was a late goal but we definitely deserved it. We were in control in the second half and if we can take that into the Scotland game, it’ll be good. If we can beat Scotland, it’s wide open.”

Given is not the only one who ties claret to green. Grealish is the boy of the hour. When at City, Given fielded questions about Stephen Ireland. Today it’s Grealish.

“He’s obviously got England in his ear now,” Given says, though not in an adversarial way.

“While fans might be frustrated, Jack’s only 19. He’s a teenager who’s started half a dozen Premier League games. His career’s just started and he’s got a decision now to make for the rest of his life.

“Genuinely, talking to him – as I do regularly – he is undecided. Not in a bad way towards Ireland, he just doesn’t know. People need to give him time. If he doesn’t choose Ireland, I’m not going to fall out with him.

“He does have genuine roots in Ireland – his gran lives in Kerry – and he was back to pick up the Under-21 award because he’s played through the age groups. He’s come through, and he’s enjoyed that. He has an affiliation with the country, it’s not like [Tony] Cascarino or something.

“But then Jack was born in Birmingham and his mum and dad are from Birmingham. It’s tricky.

“Luckily I was born in Lifford.”

As it does sometimes with Given, the conversation had returned to Donegal – Donegal, Grealish, GAA and Jim McGuinness. And it was serious.

Given had referred to England’s “bigger pool” when discussing Grealish, and to how the flow of Irish boys to English clubs has “dried up – it’s a big change and a big worry.

“Roy [Keane] mentioned it recently that John O’Shea is 34, Robbie Keane is 34 and he said I was 64. He’s got a point. When I was starting off, Duffer was coming through, Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane, there was talent playing at the top in England.

“But I’ve just seen something about six young Irish players in England to watch and I’ve hardly heard of them. Ian Lawlor, that’s a shout, I’ve worked with him at Man City – I did my coaching badges there – and I think he’s a talented goalkeeper. I think he will have a big future for Ireland.

“But the other players, they’re not near a first team. That is a concern.

“I think the biggest thing, and people won’t be happy, are rugby and Gaelic Games. The rugby men are doing so well, got success, picking up trophies and boys might be saying: ‘I’ll have some of that.’ And when you see the scenes in Donegal when a team comes back with the Sam Maguire, you can understand.

“I played Gaelic and soccer when I was growing up, no hurling. I trained with Donegal one evening up in Convoy last summer, and they train three or four nights a week. The intensity, the physical input in the session was phenomenal, there’s no way the next night they could have trained for a soccer team because their legs would have been wrecked.

“Their fitness levels have gone up. They’re machines, so it’s more difficult than it was to go 50/50. You’ve to focus on one sport and they’re going Gaelic. The rugby’s taking a few as well. Not so much in Donegal, but down the country.

“In Convoy they were building a new training centre, in the old days you’d have trained in a car park. It’s moved on and Jim’s got a lot to do with that in Donegal.

“Lifford Celtic, my first club – I don’t think they’ve changed that much. But the Roughan Gaelic pitch always used to be flooded. Now it’s fixed, new drainage, changing rooms, the GAA have put money in. That must have an impact.

“I hope I’m wrong but it is a concern: where’s Duffer?”

Considering the change McGuinness has made from Donegal to Celtic’s youths and now to the first team, Given has someone to talk with on that subject.

“Via Pat Shovelin, I built up a friendship with Jim and he invited us up to a Celtic Champions League game with Juventus,” Given says. “I stayed with Jim and we’d good craic. We’ve kept in touch.

“He’s very knowledgeable, Jim. He’s doing his coaching badges now, he’s at Celtic full-time. He’s with the Celtic first team, not with the under-age lads. He’s enjoying it.”

A future Celtic manager?

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s got all the qualities. People will say that he’s a Gaelic manager, but he knows sport and he knows how to get the best out of people. And he’s learning his trade at Celtic. In the long term I think it’d be something he’d want to do.”

Back in the car, no more 6-1. Instead it’s Manchester United’s Norman Whiteside bending the ball around Everton goalkeeper Neville Southall in 1985, Given’s first real FA Cup memory.

It was an all-day event then and he is delighted the BBC have restored that tradition this year. He was “diving around the garden” then; today it’s Wembley Stadium.

We went through the Blackburn Rovers squad from 1995 when Given was starting out – and Damien Duff was following — and you could talk to him all day about what he has seen. But, still pushing, still hungry, still part of it, the words he delivered with greatest relish are: “It’s all about now.”

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