Shay Given right at home among the Irish

Villa's goalkeeper returns to St James' relishing prospects among his compatriots

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Most professional athletes would rather look forward than back, and Shay Given is no exception. Aston Villa's goalkeeper will surely receive a rousing reception from the Newcastle United supporters when he returns to the club he represented for the best part of 12 years later today, but the Irishman admits that thoughts of this summer's European Championship are already in his mind.

"It's the first time I'll be back at St James' Park since I left so it will feel a bit strange I suppose, but you move on and the big thing for me is doing a job for Aston Villa," said Given, who made a total of 462 appearances for the Magpies, behind only Jimmy Lawrence (496) and Frank Hudspeth (472) in that famous club's history.

"At one point I did think I might spend my entire career there, but then things change and perhaps you change yourself a little bit. Sometimes you can go a bit stale at the club and at the time I left it felt right for me."

There was rather more to his leaving than that, of course. Disillusion with the way the club was being run under the ownership of Mike Ashley, and in particular with the treatment of Sir Bobby Robson, played a major part. The £80,000 a week he was offered by Manchester City probably helped a bit too, as no doubt did the remarkably lengthy five-year contract the 35-year-old Given was offered by Villa last summer after a season spent playing second fiddle to Joe Hart.

In that respect the simple fact of playing regular first team football again must be going some way towards making up for any frustration at Villa's inconsistency and apparent lack of progress this season. And as he readily acknowledges, the Republic of Ireland's qualification for Euro 2012 means he can look beyond the domestic.

"We were disappointed to go out of the FA Cup [at Arsenal], that was a big opportunity for us and we were extremely unlucky, I think. But now we have no distractions, no Europa League or either of the Cups, so all our focus can be on the Premier League, trying to finish with a sprint across the line and seeing where that takes us," said Given.

"But we have a good few Irish players in the team and in the squad and it's a big, big summer for all of us and one that is definitely at the back of your mind when working hard in training and in games. You want to push yourself to the limit to be at peak sharpness and fitness and be ready in the summer when it comes along."

Which must be good news for the Villa manager, Alex McLeish. In the latter stages of the recent game against Everton his team featured four likely members of Giovanni Trapattoni's 2012 squad in Given, Richard Dunne, Ciaran Clark and Robbie Keane. There is also Stephen Ireland, still in international exile, while Irish youngsters Enda Stephens, Graham Burke and Derrick Williams are also named members of the first team squad.

Throw in academy prospects Samir Carruthers and Michael Drennan, and Villa could name a very useful XI made up entirely of Irishmen.

"It's great for the Irish set-up because we are a small country and the more players we have in the Premier League, it's only going to strengthen us," said Given. "It was great to see that many players on the pitch at the one time, that's for sure."

From a selfish point of view, McLeish clearly agrees. "I think the Irish players have tremendous traits – they all have fighting spirit, but they also have humility and respect," said the Scot recently.

Speaking with the perspective of the man who already holds the record for appearances for his country (120), Given believes Trapattoni still has room for a certain amount of experimentation, starting with the squad he announces for the forthcoming friendly against the Czech Republic.

"The nucleus of the squad will be the lads who got us there, but I don't see a problem with a couple coming in for the manager to have a look at, and there's no reason why one or two who are on fire couldn't sneak into the squad before the summer.

"I haven't seen an awful lot of [teenage Sunderland winger] James McClean in person, just highlights on TV, but he looks a very good player. Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan have been doing well at Norwich, so there's a couple who'll be thinking they've got an outside chance and the door shouldn't be closed on anyone.

"Even nearer the time anyone can pick up an injury, so 'The Trapp' will be keeping his options open."

Aston Villa v Newcastle Utd is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm