Top 5 lists rarely feature Irish goalkeepers…..and for good reason because after an extensive search we are stuck on three.
Legends Shay Given and Packie Bonner are automatic choices for the list, but in the dark old days before Ireland’s first glorious foray into a major tournament – Euro ’88 – there are few stand-out performers that demand inclusion.
Outside of the trio chosen, and Alan Kelly Jr. who gets an honorable mention, only Jim McDonagh and Gerry Peyton have more than 20 caps. We were tempted to add a few more fringe keepers who have served the jersey admirably in recent years but to do so would devalue the process (okay we might be overstating the seriousness of the exercise here).
3. Alan Kelly Sr. – 1956-1973 (47 caps)
After these two legends it’s diffitcult to know where to go from there but the Kelly goalkeeping dynasty has to be represented. Fans will remember Alan Kelly as an Irish stalwart, serving as understudy to both Bonner and Given. His father Alan Kelly Sr. however is the man who makes our list, he was also an Irish international, having amassed 47 caps between 1956 and 1973, an era before you could beef up your total with games against the likes of Oman.
At club level the Wicklow native started out with local side Bray Wanderers before joining Preston North End where he went onto became a club legend, making over 500 appearances and he was named alongside the great Tom Finney in an all time club XI selected by the fans.
His contribution to Ireland may be less celebrated as he played in an era when the national team’s profile was akin to the local U12 side and sport in general wasn’t the obsession it is today.
Like so many others in green he never had the opportunity to showcase his talents in a major tournament, but nonetheless he enjoyed some magnificent moments in the No.1 jersey, such as making his debut in a 3-0 win over then world champions West Germany in 1956, and captaining his beloved country in a qualifier against the Soviet Union in 1972.
In later life he said playing for Ireland was the highlight of his career, he passed away in 2009 and would surely be in with a shout of featuring for a heaven XI. His other son Gary Kelly also joined the family business of goalkeeping, he played 226 times for Oldham and appeared at underage and B level for Ireland.
2. Packie Bonner – 1981-1996 (80 caps)
While Given was undoubtedly the best player ever to wear the multi-coloured no.1 jersey, fellow Donegal man Packie Bonner will be forever remembered as a hero in those heady days when Jack Charlton’s Ireland were at their zenith. Rarely has a goalkeeper personified the team spirit as much as Packie did in the 1990 tournament.
Leaving the hyperbole aside for a minute, Jack Charlton’s team, it’s fair to say, were not known for total football and with Ireland’s route one philosophy evident, Packie emerged as one of Ireland’s most important playmakers, he claimed an assist for both goals in Ireland’s Italia ’90 campaign.
Who can forget the determination etched on his face as he launched the kick out, which ultimately led to the Kevin Sheedy’s equaliser against England. Then there’s that penalty save in the shoot-out against Romania. The iconic image of this moment is indelibly printed on the consciousness of an entire nation.
The fact that he was one of the few Irish-born players starting for Ireland in an era when the Granny rule was exploited to the max only strengthened the connection between him and the fans. We also have to remember Euro ’88 and the heroics he performed to deny England repeatedly as the Boys in Green held out for an epic 1-0 win in Stuttgart.
Watching that game was as comfortable as staring out at rain fall with a full bladder for 90 minutes but those of us old enough to remember it count it as one of our most treasured memories. While it’s probably churlish to mention it here, we also have to recall his howler that gifted Holland’s Marc Overmars a goal in the second round of the USA ’94 World Cup finals.
Despite this aberration the Donegal man’s epic performances in major tournaments puts him up there with Irish sports stars such as Katie Taylor and Stephen Roche in the public’s consciousness.
Here’s Packie Bonner’s most famous of saves – that penalty against Romania at Italia ’90
1. Shay Given – 1996-2012 (125 caps)
An absolute legend of a goalkeeper who earned 125 caps for the Boys in Green (depite the fact he never played in green, Irish goalkeeping jerseys have never been easy on the eye, many would function equally well as a high vis. vest on a building site).
The Donegal man at his peak was a world class player and in many of the Irish teams he featured in he would have been the only player truly deserving of such an appellation. Despite his continued excellence it is difficult to identify a specific moment that defines his Irish career.
However, the best goalkeepers do not necessarily produce the most spectacular saves but exude an air of authority and competence that reassures the back 4, and permeates the entire team. Given was such a player, in all his 125 caps we here at Pundit Arena HQ struggled to recall any glaring error. He wasn’t at his best in Euro 2012, but such was the shambolic defending in that tournament, no goalkeeper could have made a difference.
Dan O’Mahony, Pundit Arena.