Shay Given’s contribution to the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup hopes this summer cannot be underestimated. His superlative displays against Iran in last November’s play-offs were typical of his form this season and instrumental in securing his country’s third finals appearance in four attempts.

Yet Given admits he was happy just to leave Tehran’s 120,000-capacity Azadi stadium in one piece. He explains: “As I warmed up behind the goal with my fellow keepers Dean Kiely and Alan Kelly, smoke bombs were going off all around us. It wasn’t until we got back to the dressing-room that we discovered that the devices were in fact live grenades. When the smokehad cleared, you could see craters left in the ground, so we were very lucky not to be hurt.

“We were warned before boarding the plane at Dublin that it would be a tough environment, but it was far worse than I had anticipated.

“When we got off the plane, the fans seemed more intent on getting autographs, but that all changed on the day of the match. They hurled abuse at us, plenty of rotten fruit and plastic bottles, so it took a strong character to get through it.”

Given’s double saves from Ali Karimi and Karim Bagheri are now part of Irish folklore and his celebrations at the final whistle were unrivalled. “I didn’t care where I was, it was a tremendous feeling to know that I would be playing in the World Cup finals,” he said.

“Not many people gave us a chance at the start of qualifying but to have knocked out Holland, finish second to Portugal and remain unbeaten in the group was a fantastic achievement.

“Roy Keane apart, there are nosuperstars, but our manager, Mick McCarthy, has built up a squad and a team spirit over the past five years which is very, very close. Technically we might not be the best in Europe, but few can match us for hard work and determination, and I’m sure plenty of sides will be wary of us this summer.”

As the side embarked on a ‘colourful’ journey home, one of County Donegal’s favourite sons was left to receive the adulation of a nation, and not for the first time, to count his blessings. Certainly Given’s career to date has been littered with peaks and troughs.

Having served an apprenticeship at Celtic, hemade his League bow at Blackburn Rovers but failed to supplant Tim Flowers as first choice. He followed his mentor, Kenny Dalglish, to Newcastle, but when Dalglish was replaced by Ruud Gullit, his fortunes changed again. Only in the past year, under Bobby Robson, has Given won his place back

. “Bobby has brought the players back together,” he said. “At 68, he doesn’t need all the aggravation but he does it for his love of Newcastle. His enthusiasm is infectious, he’s responsible for the way things have turned around for me, and he has the utmost respect and backing of us all.”

An early contender for Newcastle’s Player of the Year, Given also believes his accomplished performances are being helped by the ever-improving standard of football in the Premiership.

“There’s no secret formula,” he insists. “I know I’ve got the ability, but the high standard of opposition in the Premiership is also bringing the best out of me. Every week you face top-class strikers, whether it’s a team at the top or the bottom, so you are always on your toes as a goalkeeper.”

His thoughts now turn to the World Cup, where, as a relative unknown outside the British Isles, he will be looking forward to excelling himself on the very highest stage.

“I remember watching Ireland reach the quarter-finals in 1990 and know how proud it made the country. Now it will be my turn to make them proud, and for Ireland to make up for missing the 1998 finals in France.

“We certainlyhaven’t come to make up the numbers, and our qualifying form suggests that won’t be the case. I’m looking to make the second round at least, but who knows what will happen? The World Cup alwayssees a surprise country go far, and there’s no reason it can’t be us.”

Club Newcastle (Eng)
Country Republic of Ireland Born April 20, 1976, in Lifford
Previous clubs Celtic (Sco), Blackburn (Eng)
International debut April 1996, v CzechRepublic
International caps 36
Honours English Premier League 1995 (Blackburn)