Is this the greatest ever Newcastle United goalkeeper?
Being a Newcastle United fan (especially at this moment in time) certainly has its ups and downs, particularly as the Mike Ashley era sees us continue to descend into an ever growing pit of mediocrity.
What keeps us going are the memories. Great games, great players and great moments that keep us coming back for more.
In the history of English football there are now two very distinct periods: pre Premier League and post Premier League.
Since the juggernaut that it has now become was first formed in 1992, Newcastle have competed in all but three seasons of the competition, coming agonisingly close to winning it in 1996 before succumbing to the pressure of an Eric Cantona inspired Manchester United.
During that time some fantastic players have worn the famous Black and White shirt and carried the dreams of thousands of supporters on their backs every Saturday.
In a series of articles we’ll look back at some of the best of them and celebrate the very best eleven players (in my opinion at least) to wear our famous shirt since the birth of the Premier League, and today we start with the goalkeeper.
When you look back at Kenny Dalglish’s relatively brief time as manager of Newcastle United, what often gets overlooked is his record in the transfer market.
His signings are probably more remembered for the flops (Jon Dahl Tomasson, Andreas Andersson and Stephane Guivarch to name a few) than for his successes – but the truth of the matter is that he signed many good players that served us well for years afterwards, a number of whom are going to feature in this series of articles over the next few weeks.
Narrowing it down to eleven was more challenging than I had initially anticipated but the one position where there was no room for debate was in choosing the man between the sticks. There was one man who stood head and shoulders above the rest. That man was Shay Given.
Signed in the summer of 1997 from Blackburn Rovers for £1.5 million, after impressing on loan at Sunderland, Given would make 34 appearances in all competitions in his first season and played in the FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal.
Over the next three seasons, Given fought off the challenge of Steve Harper to establish himself as the undisputed number one, beginning a remarkable period of consistency that would see him make over 50 appearances in four consecutive seasons and only miss six league games in six seasons. This period of excellence was recognised by his peers as he was twice voted into the PFA Team of the Year in 2001-02 and 2005-06.
He was part of a team that came close to winning the FA Cup on four occasions and the exciting Sir Bobby Robson side that twice finished in the top four and enjoyed some incredible European nights at home and abroad.
There are so many outstanding performances and saves that stick in the memory but one that I’ll never forget was our thrashing by Liverpool at St James Park, just after Christmas in 2008. A Steven Gerrard inspired Liverpool side would put five goals past us that day but without Given it would easily have been double figures. He made outstanding save after outstanding save to repel the red wave and for the first and only time left the pitch at the final whistle, unable to really acknowledge the support of the fans who appreciated his extraordinary efforts that day, so devastated was he by our complete capitulation. This game, and events behind the scenes, were the straw that broke the camel’s back for Shay.
Ultimately, he was one of the first victims of the Mike Ashley regime. Shay Given didn’t expect us to be winning trophies every year but he wanted to play for a team where progress rather than stagnation was the target at the beginning of every season.
Although his time at the club would end with his departure halfway through our relegation season in 2008-09, few fans could blame him for leaving and joining the exciting project at Manchester City. He gave us the best years of his career and despite coming close to winning trophies we were never able to get it done. Manchester City gave him that chance when he thought it might be about to pass him by.
The one and only regret Shay Given may have is not staying long enough to break the club’s all-time appearance record, bowing out with a tally of 462, just 32 short of fellow goalkeeper Jimmy Lawrence.
After leaving the club, he would enjoy one and a half seasons between the sticks with Manchester City before being ousted by a young Joe Hart. He did though pick up his first FA Cup winners medal, as a substitute in City’s 1-0 victory over Stoke City in 2011. From there he would move to Aston Villa, where he would play in another FA Cup final but was unable to prevent his team being thrashed by Arsenal. He would wind down his career as number two goalkeeper at Stoke City and is now Head Goalkeeping Coach at Derby County.
His magnificent performances between the sticks saw a real bond forged between Given and the Geordie faithful. He was genuinely world class and you always believed you had a chance to win the game when his name was on the team sheet. Him leaving when he did deprived Newcastle fans of the opportunity to say goodbye to a genuine club legend in the manner someone of his standing truly deserved.
Considerable time may have passed but I’m sure thousands of Geordies would fill St James Park for a testimonial game for a man who gave so much to our club.
I’ll finish this article with some words from the man himself. Looking back on his time with the club he described the famous win over Barcelona as the real highlight. Speaking to The Independent, Given said:
“I think beating Barcelona in ’97 was probably the highlight. It was such a special night. They were just going to turn up, win and go back to Barcelona with their sombreros on but Tino was phenomenal and Keith Gillespie was probably even better. The atmosphere in there, what 36,000, you’d think it was 136,000, you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was unbelievable.”
That night was just one of the special memories that Given left us with and there were hundreds more.
A modern giant in the long and storied history of Newcastle United.
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