Over the course of the last two weeks, Shay Given's calf injury has been the cause of endless concern, so much so that you have to go back to biblical times and the parable of the Prodigal Son for the last time a calf received this much attention.
In a way, it's understandable. While Given has a very able deputy in Keiren Westwood, there is a feeling among Irish fans that he is the team's talisman, their longstanding number one.
Since reclaiming his place from Alan Kelly, now the Republic of Ireland's goalkeeping coach, back in February 2001, Given has missed just four competitive fixtures. In two of those games Ireland were stunned 5-2 by Cyprus and nearly held to a 1-1 draw with San Marino in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier, only for a late Stephen Ireland goal to save the day.
Saving the day, though, is Given's speciality. With 122 international appearances behind him he is Ireland's most-capped player, his exceptional technique, longevity and desire to play for his country allowing him to stay ahead of his competitors.
"As well as being an incredibly talented player, he is an incredibly nice guy," said his former Ireland international goalkeeping colleague Dean Kiely. "Most of all, he has a work ethic." That stems from his upbringing when a young Shay Given spent his evenings and weekends working in his father's market garden business.
"I knew what it was like to get my hands dirty," says Given. "I had no problem getting down on my knees to pick lettuce out of the ground. All of us in the family mucked in. It didn't do any of us any harm." In fact it would prove the perfect grounding for a player whose humility off the pitch and brilliance on it has always been hugely popular among the Irish fan-base.
Those supporters have already begun to arrive in Poland, keen on the idea of watching Given against Croatia on Sunday. He, however, is equally eager to share in their fun. "Like other players, we'd love to go out and socialise with the fans and have a good time but we've got to get our game heads on. So if we are sometimes a bit distanced from fans, it's not from wanting to be distanced. It's just that we've got to have our game heads on because we've got to be focused."
What he is focusing on now is being ready for Sunday's opener. Today, he trained for ten minutes before sitting out the remainder of the session. An hour later, Marco Tardelli, the Republic of Ireland assistant manager, insisted Given would be fine to play, echoing the comments Kelly, the goalkeeping coach, made yesterday. Given, however, has not spoken about his calf injury since last week, although the consistent word is that he will play.
Yet so long as his training appearances remain limited – he has participated in just two full such sessions since picking up his injury two weeks ago – the questions will keep on coming. And so long as his standards remain so inspirationally high, we can understand why they continue to be asked.
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