FA Cup Final: Given swears by his holy water

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The Independent Online
Simon Turnbull

meets a young keeper

who has learnt to

count his blessings

IT JUST so happens that Shay Given, the last line of the Newcastle defence at Wembley on Saturday, holds a place in the record books alongside the goalkeeper who performed FA Cup final heroics for Sunderland in 1973. While on loan to Sunderland from Blackburn Rovers two seasons ago, Given equalled Jimmy Montgomery's club record feat of keeping clean sheets in seven successive games at the late Roker Park. Whether he can match Montgomery's celebrated Cup final double save remains to be seen - as, indeed, does the original, by the young man from Donegal.

"What save?" Given said as he donned his gloves for Friday-morning training. The description of Montgomery diving to keep out Trevor Cherry's header and then rising to push Peter Lorimer's follow-up shot on to the bar met with a blank look. Given shook his head. "No," he said, "I've never seen it. I wasn't around in 1973. I was born in '76. I haven't even heard about it before. I'll have to see it now."

Perhaps the BBC could oblige on Saturday morning before Given boards the bus for Wembley. As well as enlightening the Newcastle goalkeeper, it would cheer the spirits of those watching in Wearside. Sunderland supporters are still coming to terms with seeing Given in black and white - shorts and socks, if not shirt, that is. They took the Irishman to their hearts in the three months he spent at Roker. His goalkeeping gymnastics helped Sunderland to the Premiership. In 17 matches he kept 12 clean sheets, two more than he has managed in 32 league and cup games thus far into his Newcastle career. He earned a First Division championship medal and a professional reputation which, ironically, was to lead him to Tyneside.

Peter Reid tried to buy him from Blackburn last season but when Given's contract ended in the summer he chose instead to join the manager who groomed him as Tim Flowers' understudy at Ewood Park. It has proved to be a wise decision. Given may have flown close to the Premiership trap- door with Kenny Dalglish's Magpies this season but he has hit some heights too. A year ago he was playing in the Pontin's League for Blackburn. In three years as an Irish Rover he made just two first-team appearances. He returns to Ewood today, for Newcastle's final league fixture, as the veteran of a Champions' League campaign, a World Cup play-off and an FA Cup run to Wembley.

"Everyone wants to play at Wembley," he said. "I've never even been there as a visitor before. It's a real achievement to get there in the Cup final. I may never get another chance in my career. Some top goalkeepers are never lucky enough to play at Wembley. For someone as young as me it's amazing."

At 22, young enough not to have seen the Double Monty, Given has learned to count his blessings. His goalkeeping days almost came to premature grief in the first national final he experienced - for St Columba's College, Donegal, in the All Ireland College Cup in 1990. After 90 seconds a back- pass slipped through his fingers and into his net. He was summarily withdrawn from action. The nightmare memory remains vivid to his father, Seamus, a horrified spectator at Richmond Park, Dublin, that day. "It could have been the breaking of Shay," he mused, "but it was the making of him."

At 16, Given junior followed his idol, Packie Bonner, to Celtic. He chose to leave after serving his apprenticeship - one of the reasons cited in court by Fergus McCann, the Celtic chairman, for Lou Macari's dismissal from Parkhead. He was signed on a free transfer by one of Macari's former Celtic colleagues. Dalglish had been alerted to Given's talents by his Irish scout, Pat Devlin, and by his goalkeeping coach, Terry Gennoe, who is also on the staff at St James' Park these days.

Having played just one season of first-team football, Given remains far from the finished goalkeeping article. That much was evident at Highfield Road in November when the Irishman turned his back on Dublin and Dion proceeded to score the gift goal of the season. Some say he is too small, but at six feet and half an inch he stands two and a half inches taller than Ronnie Simpson, Newcastle's goalkeeper when they last won the Cup, in 1955. Like Simpson, what Given lacks in inches he more than makes up for in agility. Alan Shearer's goal may have been directly responsible for getting Newcastle to Wembley but the saves Given made to deny Wayne Quinn a late equaliser were crucial to the semi-final success against Sheffield United.

When the final whistle blew at Old Trafford, Newcastle's No 1 punched the air in celebration and collected a small object from the back of his net. Wherever Shay Given keeps goal his vial of holy water goes too. It will be with him beneath the twin towers on Saturday.