David Preece: Ex-Sunderland and Newcastle keeper Shay Given curtailed my career - but what an incredible goalkeeper

It was raining that morning. The inside of the windows of the pavilion had steamed-up and on the outside, the raindrops ran down them, racing against each other to reach the bottom first.

Monday, 8th August 2016, 9:59 am
Updated Monday, 8th August 2016, 11:14 am

The weather matched my mood.

Prior to me looking over to the small-sided game of football being played on the pitch nearest to us at The Charlie Hurley Centre, I hadn’t realised there was a new arrival. I was on the verge of returning from a fractured wrist so I’d arrived earlier than most of the squad and got on with my rehab program.

That’s what you do when you’re injured. You shift your focus away from the game and narrow-in on the mundanity of cross training sessions in the gym because fitness is your goal now.

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You’re not trying to be the best keeper in training. You’re not trying to force yourself into the team. You’re not trying to impress the crowd.

You’re just concentrating on the minutia of body movements, pushing yourself further over the line into exhaustion. The satisfaction in that pain is euphoric at times but only lasts as long as it takes for your breathing to recover.

Then, post training, the comforting bubble of the gym and physio room is pricked and you’re forced to return to deal with the reality of life on the sidelines.

The endorphins rushing around your blood vessels gradually ebb away and the high they bring is replaced by aching muscles and the emotional trough of having your purpose stalled.

You’re pushed to the periphery of the squad, losing the interaction with your team-mates, that contact with the ball.

At first it’s a personal battle against your own body, but then once it begins to mend, the mental challenges come. This day was one of those challenges.

I wiped the condensation from the inside of the window with the sleeve of my jumper but it made little difference to my view.

The beads of water on the outside obscured it still, so I pulled open the door and poked my head through the gap, keen to see who the new keeper was.

As I scanned the pitch, I saw Alec Chamberlain standing in one goal and the new keeper in the other, ball in hand, ready to set the play off again.

I’ve always had a belief that I can tell whether a footballer is any good from just the tiniest glimpse of their play, be it from a pass, the way they control the ball or in the intelligence of a run they make.

None of which need to be of any real relevance to the game or spectacular in any way but to me you can just tell, it triggers an intuition. What I saw next was one of those times.

The keeper threw the ball out to the left wing, his arm like a catapult, with a huge amount of side-spin.

It’s the type of throw which puts that much spin on the ball that sends it way out wide away from the defender, but then draws back in towards the wide man’s path forward. It was a real zinger of a delivery.

I can remember momentarily being unable to breathe and forcibly gulped to regain my breathing.

It was nothing really, an insignificant moment in training, but I knew this guy was good.

My physical battle was almost done and I’d conquered the mental struggle of the daily battle against the machines in the gym but now there was extra competition.

Up to this point, I’d made steady if unspectacular progress through from the youth team, so much so that Peter Reid had called me into his office to tell me that I’d be his number two for the season and that an American called Brad Friedel would be coming in as his first choice.

A broken arm for me and red tape at the Home Office saw to both of those plans for the year.

Peter clearly wasn’t 100% happy with Alec but had to go with him anyway until someone else became available.

Then a conversation with then Swindon manager, Steve McMahon, lead to a recommendation of a young keeper he’d had on loan from Blackburn and that is when he arrived, and that throw signalled trouble for me.

The positivity I was feeling at returning from injury had been knocked out of me like air after a punch to the stomach. My heart sank.

Slowly feeling my way back into training, I was up for a fight and I wanted to dislike Shay. In the beginning I did.

This was the first time I’d felt this type of competition. I’d been good mates with Sean Musgrave, who was the year above me in the youth team but I’d done well enough to overcome that hurdle. This was different.

Shay was only four months older than me but I could see he was ahead of me, physically, yes, but also in his mentality and I admired that.

There was jealousy and envy there, I don’t mind admitting it. As I watched his debut at Filbert Street, as he tipped a long range effort over the bar, I turned to my dad and rather bitterly stated “I’d have saved that.”

It was out of character for me to be like that but I’d been stung by Shay’s arrival and failed miserably at hiding it.

As a guy, Shay Given is incredibly difficult to dislike and over the course of the next few months he made me push myself to levels I’d never reached before.

He had a real drive and a work ethic beyond any I’d seen up to that point and rather depressingly, I could only remember him ever making one mistake in training and I almost celebrated his fallibility. He was actually human after all.

That was the start of his rise through a brilliant career and still, it continues at Stoke.

His international career may have finally come to a close after a brief renaissance but he can look back on his 134 caps with pride as one of the best keepers the Premier League has seen.

The bitterness I initially felt upon his arrival, quickly dissipated as it came.

After all, despite his later black and white allegiances, he was and remains a great keeper and if someone is going to curtail your career, it might as well be one as good as Shay Given.