WORDS: JOHN HYNES
The recent international break was lacking something for many Irishmen as the Green Army came to terms with the retirement of Shay Given from international football. Terry McDermott believes the Ireland camp will miss the legendary stopper’s human qualities as much as his supreme goalkeeping ability…
‘How are you horse?’ The familiar tone of that text message always brings a smile to Terry McDermott’s face.
The former Liverpool and England midfielder knows the sender well.
“Every time I get a message from him or talk to him on the phone, he refers to me as ‘horse’,” the 60-year-old chuckles. “It’s ‘horse this’ and ‘horse that’. I don’t understand why he uses that to refer to people, but I suppose it means we’re good mates.
“Being a friend of Shay Given’s is a privilege.”
Their friendship was forged during seven years at Newcastle United, where McDermott was a long-serving part of the backroom staff, after initially arriving to work alongside Kevin Keegan.
He still recalls the day a new face first took his place between the posts at the training ground during the summer of 1997.
“‘Who’s this kid?’ was my initial reaction. Kenny Dalglish had just come in and bought him for over a million quid, which was an awful lot of money for any youngster then, never mind an unproven goalkeeper.
“I knew he had been at Blackburn and on loan at Sunderland, that was about it. Immediately you could see Shay was top quality. His shot-stopping was, and still is, excellent.
“People always said he was small for that position. When you stand next to him he doesn’t look small. I’m not short and he’s bigger than me.
“I’ve always liked how, when he makes a good save, he doesn’t stop. He’s quickly back to his feet to make another one. He was already good and continued to improve season by season. The fee Kenny paid was money well spent.”
An inevitable downside to playing between the posts is making mistakes. Given has endured one or two, probably most famously when Dion Dublin crept up behind him as he rolled the ball out at Highfield Road. The Coventry striker’s gleeful expression when he scored was countered by a rueful grimace from the net-minder. Jokes about Given being the only Irishman not to know where Dublin is were immediately doing the rounds.
Just as quick was Given’s ability to move on from the moment.
“It didn’t bother him,” McDermott points out. “He just got on with it. That’s the sign of a top-class goalkeeper. He never made many errors anyway. But some [keepers] can be really affected when something goes wrong. Shay is mentally strong enough to get over anything.”
McDermott, recently installed as assistant manager to Lee Clark at Birmingham City, also points to a distressing day at Upton Park in 2006 as another example of how Given deals with adversity.
A perforated bowl following a clash with Marlon Harewood left the then Newcastle man needing emergency surgery.
“We were very concerned. He nearly lost his life. On the way back to the North East that evening we were all worried about the outcome. It was serious.
“To come back from that tells you all about his character. Not everyone could do that. And he returned as good as before, it wasn’t like he was holding back because he feared being injured again. He never shirked a challenge.”
If listing his friend’s major slip-ups takes some thought, McDermott has just as much difficulty selecting the Donegal man’s best performances.
“There are loads to choose from, it’s almost impossible. What I can say is when you are sat in the dugout it was always a great feeling to know Shay was between the posts.
“As part of the coaching staff there’s not a lot you can do once a game starts, you’re helpless. With Shay as the last line of defence you knew it would have to be a decent effort to get past him.”
Whenever the best goalkeepers of recent decades in English football are debated, names such as Peter Schmeichel, David Seaman and Petr Cech are guaranteed a mention. More often than not, Given’s name is omitted. McDermott played alongside the excellent Ray Clemence for the majority of his time at Anfield and disagrees with such assertions.
“Shay deserves to be put in the top group. He’s been superb, as good as Schmeichel or Seaman. I’ve no doubt about that.”
And McDermott thinks he will go on playing at the top level for many more seasons.
“He’s probably retired [from international football] because he wants to prolong his club career. He’s fit and, if he can stay injury free, he still has a lot more years left in the Premier League. There’s no reason why he can’t play until he’s well beyond 40.”
The announcement that Given has featured in his last international, barring exceptional circumstances, means those latter years won’t be spent adding to his 125 caps.
“That’s an incredible achievement,” McDermott points out. “Not many people will reach that tally. I’m sure all his family are very proud. All of us, his friends, are proud too. I’m delighted he went on to have such a great career because he’s a class act, on and off the field.
“He’s always fantastic to be around, he loves a laugh and never stops telling jokes or stories. I’m sure the lads in the Ireland squad will miss his presence and his quality. Going away with their country won’t be the same when Horse isn’t there.”