After what he had been accustomed to for over half of his life, spending pre-season at Macclesfield Town this year felt markedly different for legendary stopper Shay Given as he continues to consider what comes next. With TV punditry and promotion of his autobiography, the ex-Newcastle United and Republic of Ireland star has been constantly occupied of late, though that Silkmen stint this summer did plant some added seeds of inspiration.
Lining up in the World Cup and European Championship, in an FA Cup final, and standing tall against Europe’s best in the Champions League for Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United – Shay Given has been known over the last two decades by pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in English football. While he has been called upon in more recent times to primarily offer expert back-up and support, the reputation of the ex-Manchester City keeper within the game is as solid as the protection he has so often provided his defence with.
The man who stared down the likes of Fernando Hierro and Gaizka Mendieta in that Suwon shootout in the 2002 World Cup’s last 16 was doing almost the same just recently, as he appeared at the new DW Fitness First store in Gateshead’s intu Metrocentre, facing a few spot kicks from the public. As he met fans, he also signed copies of his recently-released autobiography, Any Given Saturday, which he has been hard at work promoting in various locations, including back in his native Donegal just a day before his return to the North East.
Even though he’s been combining that with appearances in the Sky Sports studio amongst his media gigs, the 41-year-old has never officially retired from the dayjob he has performed with such assurance since the 90s. Save loans spent with Swindon Town and Sunderland as a teenager, and Middlesbrough in 2013/14, he has never played outside the Premier League at club level.
Understandably, a 2017/18 pre-season embarked upon with Macclesfield Town was something of a step into the unknown, despite the Vanarama National League club being a stone’s throw from his Cheshire base. Along with one-time top-flight defenders Wes Brown and Alex Bruce, he joined up with John Askey’s Silkmen, who at the time had Shay’s former Newcastle comrade Steve Watson, now boss at Gateshead, as their assistant.
There to maintain his fitness and keeper-specific skills, feeling the gym can only offer so much, Shay admits that being involved with a setup at that level brought a definite freshness to a pre-season track he has trodden so many times before.
“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,” the 134-cap Irish international explained. “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.”
Twice named in the Premier League’s PFA Team of the Year, Shay took part in some coaching with Macclesfield’s keepers, and he has said he would love to get involved with that side of the game. He has, however, also alluded to the limited chances for domestic coaches at top clubs, as overseas managers bring in their trusted staff from their previous clubs.
John Askey praised the professional nature Shay, Wes Brown and Alex Bruce brought to the club and even joked that Macc’s best defence in training was the trio and Steve Watson – as he put it, ‘We just need a left-back now!’ While he was with the Moss Rose outfit, Shay said he felt fit and able to do a job for another season as a Premier League number two or three, or as a Championship keeper.
He told how he was trying his best to make sure he knew the name of everyone at Macc, while the players would tell him he was on every channel when they’d put the TV on! Aside from that general lack of shyness, the Silkmen are a team seemingly very much on the up, with Scott Wilson’s goals one of the standout factors in their recent ascent to the top of the fifth tier.
Shay was around a group possessing undoubted ability, with arguably the potential to go on to higher levels given the right guidance, the necessary industry from the players and perhaps some good fortune. With that in mind, did Shay feel his desire to coach was enhanced that little bit more from his time at the club, as he saw first-hand the impact he could have?
“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.
“In the future if something that was of interest came up then I’d have a look at it.”
Non-league currently houses so many players and coaches who have made their name at higher levels, and of course it can work the other way, with in-form Premier League performers like Burnley keeper Nick Pope and Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin both having cut their teeth much further down the pyramid. There are also more seasoned top-flight names like the often-referenced Jamie Vardy and also Charlie Austin, while you can rewind the decades and pick out England names like Ian Wright, Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce.
Shay has worked closely with another ‘non-league graduate’ in recent years in Ireland keeper Keiren Westwood, who was let go by Manchester City as a youngster and after several unsuccessful trials was ready to submit his police force application, before Carlisle United called. Understudy to Matt Glennon as the Cumbrians won the 2005 Conference play-offs with present-day Brighton goalgetter Glenn Murray in the ranks, Westwood became their number one as they almost went all the way to the Championship within three years.
He went on to star for Coventry City and feature for Sunderland in the top flight, as well as twice reaching the brink of a Premier League return with current club Sheffield Wednesday, where his reputation has rocketed. Part of Ireland’s Euro 2012 and 2016 squads with the 33-year-old, Shay sees Westwood as a further example of the gems that can exist within non-league.
“Keiren’s another one of them guys; he was at Man City as a kid, got knocked back and he’s gone right down the ladder. You can even look at Kasper Schmeichel in recent times (played League Two with Darlington, Bury and Notts County), even though he didn’t quite play non-league.
“I think it’s credit to these guys that they’re not happy to sit somewhere as a number two or three. They’re ambitious enough to want to be the best they can be and Keiren’s in the national squad, I think he’s been Player or Goalkeeper of the Season in the Championship over the last few years as well.
“Excuse the pun but Sheffield Wednesday are in very good hands, because he’s a very good goalkeeper.”
On here last month, Redditch United boss at the time, Darren Byfield, who started out at Aston Villa, suggested that the primary difference between EFL and non-league players lies in the mentality and not the ability. A key part of what Shay has started to do is offer his observations on the game via punditry, so even though he may only have Macclesfield as a reference point, does he think there could be some significant shards of truth in Byfield’s assertion?
“Well, I think a lot of players at non-league level have got great ability; it’s just applying themselves. I’m not saying at Macc, it’s just in general.
“Maybe they don’t apply themselves that well away from training and stuff, I don’t know, but there is a lot of ability. Obviously the shining light is Jamie Vardy for what he’s done in his career and with the lads at Macc there are some very talented players there.
“I think they want to get back into league football; a lot of them have been at league clubs before and got knocked back, but they’re still talented players. I can only speak for Macc because I don’t know the other teams that well, but they’re top of the league and there’s a reason for that.
“I think they’re ambitious as well to climb the ladder; I don’t think they think that’s their level, so they’re trying to push on. I think it’s good for young players in non-league as well that there’s competitive games week in, week out, rather than just being in an academy where you’re playing the same guys every week.
“It’s men’s football and they’ve got to grow up pretty quick.”
Back in the summer, Shay told Irish press how he had offers from India to go and join long-time international counterpart Robbie Keane in the Indian Super League. While he said it wasn’t a door he wanted to shut, he pointed to their season starting in November as one of the reasons why it would be one to keep in mind rather than actively pursue.
A father-of-four, Shay has two particularly young children with his fiancee, Becky, and he joked that he might go and join Keane in India so he can get some sleep! He admits that one of the numerous appeals to lending his voice to the media side of the game is that it allows a greater balance between work and family time.
Shay has drawn upon the advice of ex-Ireland teammates Niall Quinn and Jason McAteer about planning for what comes next when the boots (or gloves) are hung up for good. His country’s undisputed number one for so many years, he describes taking on an almost entirely new perspective at last year’s Euros in France, as ‘half a player, half a fan’ when providing back-up to Darren Randolph alongside Keiren Westwood that summer.
When Robbie Brady scored the winner against Italy to send them through to the knockout phase, Shay was in full fan mode as he ran on to the pitch to celebrate, but going back to watch the team when they play at the Aviva Stadium stills feels strange. Talking about football has him feeling at ease, and he says you can be sure he won’t be switching to the world of business, for example, any time soon.
Like a high, hanging cross that you’d back him to claim with characteristic authority, the exact role of ‘the Shay after tomorrow’ is up in the air.
“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 (coaching)? 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. I’m doing the Newcastle (versus Leicester City) game tomorrow as well, so that’s good.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes