SHAY Given had a bizarre nickname during his Manchester City days. I discovered this a couple of years ago, when I spoke to him and a couple of his team-mates at a children’s ten-pin bowling day in Didsbury organised by the club and the local council.
It was a chaotic afternoon. But then, with hindsight, it was a chaotic time at City all round. The date was December 8, 2009, and the club had begun to explore the possibility of replacing Mark Hughes with Roberto Mancini. But the outside world wasn’t to find that out for another week-and-a-half. Even Hughes himself didn’t yet know.
And so, on that Tuesday at a bowling alley on the boundary between Manchester and Stockport, the focus was on other matters.
Those in charge of organising the day had the job of keeping not only a large party of excited children under control, but also a large party of excited journalists swarming around trying to grab interviews with players. (The children were the better behaved group, if you were wondering.)
And then, to make matters more complicated, Robinho turned up two hours late. The striker had, apparently, completely forgotten that he was supposed to appear at the event, to meet and greet the kids and to do an interview for the BBC’s Football Focus. Instead, he had gone straight home after training. So City had to send someone to his Cheshire home to pick him up.
The youngsters got to meet Robinho in the end, though, and Football Focus got their interview. It makes for fascinating viewing now. He told his interviewer that he was happy at City and hoped to stay for the next 10 years. Within seven weeks, he had played his last game for the club and returned to Brazil to join Santos on loan.
Amid all of this, Given cut a composed figure. A father-of-two himself, he was right at home playing a few games of bowls with some young fans. Afterwards, I talked to him about his own family, and how they had settled in Manchester after 12 years of living in Newcastle.
Uprooting can be tough for footballers too, you know. Sure, it’s a profession in which you’re expected to move between different parts of the country, and even between different countries. And if you join a Premier League club, there are player liaison officers to help you find a house, new schools for your children and the nearest decent restaurant (perhaps it will even be one that Carlos Tevez likes). But moving can still be a wrench.
And for Given, leaving Newcastle – the club where he had made his name – was hard, even though they were plummeting towards the Championship by the time he joined Manchester City in February 2009.
“So as long as the kids and the missus are happy, then you’re happy yourself,” was the way Given summed it up.
He’d told me a fair bit about his family life during the interview, but he hadn’t told me his nickname. Well, his two nicknames. I found those out when I spoke to Vincent Kompany a few minutes later.
“Sometimes I call him The Box, because his head is in the shape of a box,” Kompany said. Charming.
“Otherwise, I call him The Magician, which does him much more of a favour. He pulls off so many saves at the right time.” Yes, that one was definitely better.
While Kompany – himself a thoughtful, unflappable character – has since gone on to become City’s captain, Given was forced to move on again last summer, having lost his place to Joe Hart. It says much about his eagerness to play that he was prepared to move again, this time to Aston Villa (though his family have not yet moved with him – he’s staying in a hotel at the moment), and to take a pay cut to do so.
Villa don’t have much money to spend on players these days, but The Box was worth a lot more than the £3million they paid for him. On the evidence of his performance against his former club this weekend, he’s still living up to Kompany’s second nickname for him, too.
MOTD’s final match: Aston Villa 1 Newcastle 1
Commentator: Steve Wilson
In a professional career dating back to 1992, Given had never played against Newcastle before, so this was something of a significant day for him. He didn’t disappoint, making two excellent saves – one from Steven Taylor in the first half, another from Yohan Cabaye in the second.
He almost kept out Leon Best’s equaliser, too – which cancelled out Gabriel Agbonlahor’s opener – as he saved the striker’s first chance at point-blank range before he was beaten on the rebound.
Villa, despite the presence of Darren Bent, don’t look like a side who will score bags of goals this season (losing Ashley Young and Stewart Downing is bound to have blunted their attacking threat to some degree), so Given’s ability to keep them out at the other end is likely to vital this season. It certainly was on Saturday.
Newcastle probably should have won. Cabaye hit the bar and missed a decent chance near the end too. An impressive performance from the France international midfielder lured Mark Lawrenson into what has become known (to me, at least) as the ‘Shearer-Ben Arfa trap’.
You may remember, last September, Hatem Ben Arfa scoring a fantastic winning goal for Newcastle at Everton, and Alan Shearer, on the Match of the Day sofa, responding during the post-match analysis by saying: “No one really knows a great deal about him.”
Ben Arfa had, at this stage, been a full France international for three years. (And he is, as Steve Wilson mentioned during his MOTD commentary, set to make his return for Newcastle in Tuesday night’s Carling Cup tie at Nottingham Forest after nearly a year out injured.)
You’d think, after the barrage of criticism Shearer received for his ignorance, that the MOTD pundits would tread carefully when it comes to established France internationals at Newcastle. Not Lawro.
“We don’t know all that much about Cabaye, signed in the summer, obviously,” Lawro said.
Cabaye, by the way, has represented France at every level from Under-16s upwards, made his full international debut more than a year ago and was once part of a Lille side that beat Manchester United in the Champions League. It’s not that difficult to find out stuff about him. He’s not exactly JD Salinger.
Oh well. What do you know about Shay Given, Lawro?
“We know all about Shay Given,” he said. “Just a brilliant goalkeeper.”
OK. I bet you don’t know his nicknames, though.
1. Aston Villa: 3 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
2: Wolves: 2 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
3. Wigan: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 1)
4. Swansea: 1 (2L: 2, 3L: 0)
5. Fulham: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
5. Newcastle: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
5. Tottenham: 1 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
8. Blackburn: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
8. Everton: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
8. Norwich: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 1)
11. Arsenal: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
11. Sunderland: 0 (2L: 1, 3L: 0)
13. Bolton: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
13. Chelsea: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
13. QPR: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
13. West Brom: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 1)
17: Liverpool: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
17. Manchester City: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
17. Manchester United: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
17. Stoke: 0 (2L: 0, 3L: 0)
2L = On second last (Everton 3 Wigan 1)
3L = On third last (Bolton 1 Norwich 2)
(Teams receive one point every time they are last on MOTD. Teams level are separated by the number of times they are on second last, then by the number of times they are on third last. MOTD2 not included.)