WHEN the red and white shirts head over to the land of black and white on the banks of the River Tyne this morning, there is likely to be a number of players inside the two dressing rooms under prepared for the occasion.
It’s Tyne-Wear derby day. Passions will run high, hatred will be in full flow and both teams are expected to win. Defeat is not an option, with supporters from both sides demanding success.
While this particular meeting between Newcastle United and Sunderland will include a number of new recruits later today, a player with arguably the greatest experience of starting a Tyne-Wear derby will be playing in South Yorkshire.
Rather than travel up to Newcastle to see how two of his former clubs get on with derby debutants Luuk De Jong, Ignacio Scocco, Marcos Alonso and Liam Bridcutt in tow, the shot-stopping skills of Shay Given will be at Doncaster Rovers aiming to maintain Middlesbrough’s recent revival in the Championship.
Thirteen-and-a-half years after he was between the posts for Newcastle as Sunderland won 2-1 in the pouring rain at St James’, courtesy of Don Hutchison and Niall Quinn’s goals, he is focused on a different challenge. The challenge this time is to keep Middlesbrough in touch with the play-off places.
The Irishman also had his fair share of ding-dongs with Boro; yet his performances at the Riverside Stadium have led to him being adored on Teesside since his arrival on loan from Aston Villa in November. To have played for all three of the region’s biggest clubs is unusual, but to be still well liked on the streets of three different North-East cities says a lot about his character and ability.
“You have to prove on the pitch and go out and perform,” said Given. “Thankfully I have been able to do that so far. It’s sort of been home from home, coming back here to the region and I’ve really enjoyed it.
“I have a hat-trick of clubs up here. Hartlepool next, then Darlington and Gateshead to complete the set! There’s not many players that have done that. I will look back at who I have played for up here and think that was pretty cool to have done that.”
The last few months have seen Given work under another new manager, Aitor Karanka. Each one has had his own coaching methods and techniques and he has been hugely impressed by the Spaniard’s approach. “I have worked with a few foreign managers in the past and I think this one is a cool customer,” he said. “He never gets too irate. He says less when he is angry. If he is not happy with something he says very little and you can see he is chewing inside.”
Karanka might be his latest leader, but it is fair to say Given has worked under a few. In fact, as a list is presented to him, he adds a couple and takes one away – “I played for Ray Harford and Steve McMahon” – until a final figure is reached. By calculations, excluding short-term caretakers, Karanka is the 23rd manager he has played for.
He joked: “I probably won’t get signed by another either when this list comes out, they’ve probably all been sacked as well.”
A career which started when Liam Brady took him from Ireland to Celtic as a teenager then took in Blackburn, Swindon, Sunderland, Newcastle, Manchester City and Aston Villa before joining Middlesbrough. Only five of those were permanent deals, yet he experienced the tones of many more managers.
Despite a successful five months on loan in helping Sunderland to promotion at the start of 1996 under Peter Reid, and years on the international scene with the Republic of Ireland playing for Mick McCarthy, there are only three managers he highlights as the most inspirational to him.
“I’d have to say Liam Brady, Kenny Dalglish and, of course, Sir Bobby (Robson) had the biggest influence on me,” said Given, who has made more than 500 professional appearances.
He made scouts from across Britian sit up and take notice of him over in Ireland long before his Sunderland stint. In County Donegal, he was spotted playing for Lifford Celtic by the Glasgow version and his days at Parkhead and Blackburn laid the foundations for the next two decades.
Given, who never played for the Bhoys but did sit on the bench for the Old Firm derby with Rangers on January 1, 1994, said: “I could have gone to different clubs but being a Celtic fan, and Liam being Irish, it was the first step up the ladder. I felt coming over from Donegal at 15 that I would have been looked after and it was the right move for me.
“Kenny Dalglish was probably the biggest influence on my career on that list. He signed me for Blackburn and then took me to Newcastle. He threw me into the Premier League aged 21 and not many managers would have done that.”
Yet Dalglish only lasted 18 months in the job. He might have left a lasting impression on Given, but the Magpies fans never really took to the former Liverpool boss after the excitement and drama of the Kevin Keegan era.
“Things changed for whatever reason. It didn’t work for him but I have a lot of respect for Kenny and for what he did for my career,” said Given. “He won the Premier League in his first year with resources, nothing compared to what Chelsea and Man City have spent. He is a fantastic manager which was his biggest attribute.”
He was also privileged to have worked under Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle. Given said: “We were challenging in the Premier League under him. We finished second, third, fourth, which is not easy as we all know. The league form was pretty consistent and when he took over we were bottom so he turned it right round.
“We competed in the Champions League and got to the second phase having lost the first three games in the groups, which I don’t think has been done before or since. It was a good time to be at the club.”
To have enjoyed five years under Robson will forever be special to Given. He has his own tales from the days on the training ground with the loveable former England manager from County Durham.
“He called me Shay Brennan once when he named the team,” said Given. “He said ‘Shay Brennan in goal’ and I was thinking ‘who’s he?’ I turned round expecting to see a new signing in the dressing room, but it was the fella who played for Man United.”
Given was not one to bite his lip either. He remembers one day after a game when he had to speak his mind to Robson.
“One time I let a goal in from a through ball and maybe I should have come out and cleared it but someone poked it through my legs,” said Given. “The following Monday morning, Bobby did the same thing about 50 times to me. I lost my head with him because I think Alan missed a penalty in a game and I made the point that didn’t mean we spent all day practising penalties.”
Years adapting to the styles of so many different managers, of varying ability, have left an imprint on Given. His playing career, despite the frustrations of being cast aside so unfairly at Aston Villa in recent years, has led to him thinking about the future – and a future in management, perhaps.
The 37-year-old, who already holds a UEFA A licence, said: “I see no reason why keepers can’t make managers. If you had a philosophy and had a good team with good players, then it is a question of getting the best out of people and using man-management skills, which is 90 per cent of the job. “It is not rocket science. It doesn’t need to be complicated. I haven’t thought about it I just wanted the option, I didn’t want to go in to it at 40 because it can take five or six years to get coaching qualifications, I wanted to have them while I am still playing.”
The spell at Middlesbrough has increased his hunger for playing again. Retirement is not in his thinking just yet. He said: “My dad, Seamus, played in the Ulster Senior League until his 40s and we used to go to watch him as kids. I still feel I want to keep going and I am enjoying my time here of course.”
While Given spoke at length about the managers he has encountered, it became clear the biggest influence of them all was a lot closer to home.
“I was a centre forward and my dad said I should stick to goalkeeping, I don’t know if he thought I was rubbish outfield but I was top scorer at my school,” said Given.
“He had a philosophy that there was only one keeper. If you can peak in that position you can have a real chance. He obviously saw something in me and it was 14 or 15 before I decided to stick with it.”
The decision has proven worthwhile. And, after six clean sheets in his last eight appearances, Middlesbrough have reaped the benefits in the push for a play-off spot ahead of a day when he will also have an eye on events on Tyneside.