Shay Given still up for the ultimate challenge

Veteran Stoke goalkeeper says he is not in France to ‘make up the numbers’

Goalkeeper Shay Given in action during Ireland’s training session in Versailles. Photo: Filip Singer/EPA

Goalkeeper Shay Given in action during Ireland’s training session in Versailles. Photo: Filip Singer/EPA

 

“I get a lot of ‘old and experienced’ questions these days,” notes Shay Given drily when reflecting on a two-decade international career which has brought him to the haughty suburb of Versailles and another major tournament adventure.

“I have to get used to that.”

The Lifford man is sweating lightly after spending Thursday morning training alongside Keiren Westwood and Darren Randolph.

Injury saw him slip back in the pecking order over the course of Ireland’s eventful qualifying campaign but Given is hopeful he can add to his 133 international appearances over the coming weeks.

If he gets a call from Martin O’Neill he will become the oldest player to appear in the finals of a European championship, along with Gabor Király, the Hungarian veteran goalkeeper familiar to Crystal Palace fans.

Lothar Matthaus ran the German midfield at Euro 2000 at the age of 39 and has since held the grand-old-man-honour.

Given and Király are on the threshold of further pushing the age-barrier.

“He’s got baggier bottoms than me,” Given says of Király.

“Yeah. It’s mad that I could be the oldest at the tournament. But I’d love to start. The manager wants competition in that position. Hopefully I’m not here to make up the numbers.

“I want to start. I feel fit, I’m good to go. I’ve trained every day for two-and-a-half weeks and played the last game of the season at Stoke and last week in Cork. He’ll keep us guessing right up until kick-off.

“But that’s a good thing because we will all prepare as if we’re starting and no-one slacks off, we all try to impress.”

It is hard to believe that Given’s involvement with Ireland stretches almost as far back as the melancholy closing stage of the Charlton era.

From his heroic – and ultimately tearful – performance in the World Cup playoff against Belgium in Heysel in November 1997 Given has been ever-present in Irish camps.

He says the eve of big tournaments still give him the tingles. The Republic’s quarters are far from the madding crowd here: Versailles feels further than a 15-minute train-journey.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on security at this tournament is inescapable.

Difficult time

French guards have been detailed to occupy all team buses as well and have become part of the Irish entourage.

“I wouldn’t want to mess with them,” Given says.

“That’s the first time I’ve had that at a tournament and they are travelling everywhere with us. It’s a difficult time in France after the attacks last year and it’s the same for every team, we have to make sure everyone is safe. A couple of times we have stopped on the bus and a few gunmen have jumped out – it can be a little bit nerve-wracking on that front. But that’s only been because there was traffic in the end.

“I suppose we’ll get used to it, but it does seem a bit weird. But we’re well protected and you have to have faith in the security and the French services, they are trained in this. That’s what they do – we play football and they keep people safe. I’ve been telling our security guys, ‘We don’t need you any more, you can go back to Dublin’. They’re not too happy about that.”

Four years ago, the Republic’s tournament preparation under Giovanni Trapattoni – a whistle-stop match in Budapest and an interminable week in the sedate Italian spa resort of Montecatini before the touring party even made it to the host country – created an atmosphere of cabin-fever.

The team have hardly had time to unpack their bags in the team hotel – the blindingly opulent Trianon Palace, which makes the other palace in Versailles look a bit on the austere side – before they had their first training session.

With Ireland’s first match already coming into sharp focus, killing time won’t be a problem.

Still, there are only so many hours you can spend loafing around the old Trianon’s luxury spa or drawing room or daydreaming about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The players have yet to learn to what degree they will be permitted to wander off reservation.

“I’m the sure the gaffer will sit down with us and let us know what we can and can’t do in the village, like have a walk for a coffee, but that will come back to a security point of view.”

Part of the lore of Ireland at major tournaments revolves around the relationship between the players and the supporters, emanating from the unforgettable scenes during the Republic’s debut appearance in 1988, when fans had extraordinary access to the players.

But all of that has changed. On Thursday, the players stopped for selfies and autographs with the public but it was a fleeting engagement. The footballers are cordoned off now.

Very hospitable

“The fans probably think that we are too big-time to talk to them. It’s not the case at all. We’re sort of...we have to stay in the one position, we are told by security people we have to stay in the one place. And it’s a shame for the fans because they want to have pictures and mementos of meeting the players and stuff. And it’s not the players doing.

“It’s the way the game has gone And I dunno...when we get a chance here in Versailles and in Paris, the players are very hospitable and will do the best they can. Everything is in good nick. The hotel is fantastic. We’ve had a good welcome from the locals, as you could see at training. We’re all happy.”

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