Tue, Jan


REPUBLIC of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given is steeling himself to crack the second big crisis of his fledgling career.

Acclaimed as one of Britain's top young keepers at the start of this season, Given is currently keeping the bench warm at Newcastle.

And he admits that patience is now the name of the game as he awaits the chance to reclaim his place from Shaka Hislop.

"It's just a case of biding my time and waiting for the chance to show that I can still do the top job for the club," says the 21-year-old from Lifford.

"Okay, Shaka has done well since getting into the side. Since there's only one spot in the team for a keeper, that adds up to problems for me.

"But I have enough self belief to know that when I get back into the side, I'm going to make it difficult for anybody to push me out of it."

Ironically, it was a similar situation at Blackburn which prompted him to leave Ewood Park and follow his old gaffer Kenny Dalglish to Geordieland.

For two years, he'd been the perfect understudy for Tim Flowers - slipping in for the occasional match but invariably dropped immediately the England player became available again.

Eventually Shay couldn't take it any more and, influenced by ambitious Newcastle, he signed on the dotted line at St James's Park.

Given has just gritted his teeth through two of the most miserable months of his career.

After crashing out of the first team with injury in November, he suffered in silence . . . watching Hislop turn it on with some sizzling displays for Dalglish.

It could have brought unhappy memories of that frustrating last season at Blackburn flooding back.

But the young Irishman, a protege of Packie Bonner, looks on the bright side.

"There's a massive difference in my situation here and at Blackburn - and any time I feel a bit down it gives me real hope. It didn't matter how well I played at Rovers - I knew I was automatically out once Tim Flowers was available for selection.

"Here, I'm competing on a level playing field. Shaka is a good goalkeeper but I know that when I get back into the team, the boss will keep me there providing my performances justify it.

"That's a real help these days. When you do all the hard work in training, it isn't easy knowing that unless there's an injury or something you're not going to have a game at the weekend."

Given's problem has not gone unnoticed by Mick McCarthy. For much of the last year he's put his faith in the youngster who had raised his total of Ireland caps to 14 by the time the World Cup programme ended in November in Belgium.

The exception was the home game against Romania when with Given on a yellow card, the manager decided to play it safe and recall his great international rival Alan Kelly.

Now McCarthy has some awkward decisions to make when he sits down to name his team for the crunch game against the Czech Republic at Oromouc on March 25.

Significantly, Given was also short of first team football at Blackburn when he was capped for the first time in McCarthy's opening game in charge - against Russia at Lansdowne Road.

But the manager admits that there's a subtle difference second time around.

"When a youngster is in the reserves and pushing to make the breakthrough - as Shay was at Blackburn - it doesn't really matter that he's not getting senior experience because in that situation he's generally all fired up," says McCarthy.

"It's a bit different though when having won promotion and made his way into the first team the lad then finds himself out of favour again.

"That can be a bit depressing but goalkeepers are a different breed from the rest of us and in these matters I take my advice from Packie Bonner.

"He knows the lad better than most - they both come from Donegal - and he's convinced that his hiccup will only have the effect of making Shay work even harder on his game. "The bottom line from Packie is that we shouldn't worry too much. If we need Shay in the Czech Republic he's going to be ready."

Worryingly for McCarthy, Kelly is also out of the first team at Sheffield United, leaving Bolton's Keith Branagan as the only Irish keeper currently in favour with a top club.

In Kelly's case however reprieve could well be at hand - thanks to last Saturday's sensational developments at Portsmouth.

It was Simon Tracey's red card which precipitated the crowd trouble that ended in a linesman being stretchered off.

Now with Tracey heading for an automatic suspension, it may be cue for a return by Kelly.

"No less than Shay Given, Alan can also do with first team football as we begin to look towards our European warm-up games," warns McCarthy.

"Alan is another of those players who push themselves hard in training. But he'll be desperately anxious to keep his first team place at Bramall Lane when he eventually gets back in."