Blog: Future in safe hands with Villa keepers union
16th Feb 2012
And, in the eyes of Villa's oldest player, the future is in safe hands.
Not just metaphorically but in terms of his specialist and sometimes unforgiving occupation.
Thanks to the sound working environment created by goalkeeping coach Terry Gennoe, the claret and blue branch of the Keepers' Union is an exciting place to be.
The Shrewsbury-born coach has fostered a solid team ethic among the broad spectrum of custodians in the ranks.
While Given, Brad Guzan and Andy Marshall strive to fine-tune their own techniques, they are actively encouraged to help along the five keepers from the club's academy.
They may walk alone on a matchday but during the week Villa's shot-stoppers are a close-knit eight-man unit.
"It is a very big part for me, it means a lot," says Gennoe.
"The senior keepers are fantastic because they will help coach the younger ones too and they are great role models for the kids.
"They apply themselves so well and it is great learning environment for young keepers.
"It is a strange environment because the keepers go out on to the pitch as one but they work during the week as a team.
"People joke about the Goalkeepers Union but it is a bond."
Former Blackburn Rovers No.1 Gennoe arrived at Villa in September and was reunited with Given, having coached him at Ewood Park and for a spell at Newcastle.
His goalkeeping cast at Bodymoor Heath is wide-ranging.
Given's exceptional record needs little explanation.
The Republic of Ireland's record appearance maker has become an instant favourite among Villa supporters since arriving in the summer as Alex McLeish's first signing.
USA international Guzan's penalty-saving exploits have earned him cult hero status despite spending most of his claret and blue career as second choice.
I personally count his heroics at Sunderland in October 2009 - when he saved four penalties to help Villa into the last eight of the Carling Cup - as one of the most extraordinary individual performances I've seen in my time covering the club.
Andy Marshall brings a wealth of knowledge from stints with eight different professional clubs.
Then there is 19-year-old Benjamin Siegrist, an U17 World Cup winner with Switzerland and Villa's regular reserve team keeper.
Not far behind him is Calum Barrett, who had a coming-of-age performance in the recent NextGen Series clash against Marseille.
Gazing further into the future, academy starlets Brad Watkins, Craig Hill and Matthew Coton complete Gennoe's band of merry men.
Siegrist and Barrett have already been primed for the big-game situation, with Gennoe taking the step of integrating them into first team warm-up sessions on matchdays.
The duo have thoroughly impressed Given, who believes they can achieve great things under the tutelage of his long-time mentor.
The 35-year-old also detects an encouraging hunger to learn.
"It is great experience for them," said Given. "I think Benji and Calum have got a big futures ahead of them and with Terry working with them they are only going to get better.
"Coming in on a matchday warming up in front of big crowds is a good experience for them.
"On the training ground you try and help them out with little bits of advice when you can.
"If you see them doing something wrong or that can benefit them and help them improve then you give them advice.
"I think the young keepers at the club are open to that because they are really keen to improve.
"I first worked with Terry when I was 18 when I went to Blackburn and he has been a great help for me as well.
"That's why it is great for the likes of Benji and Calum - I was a similar age when I started working with him and he improved me no end.
"We work hard and we cover all aspects of the game in training but we do have fun as well.
"We do try and enjoy training as much as we can because in football, and in life in general, if you enjoy what you are doing then you are going to play to a better standard."
It is often suggested that goalkeepers are late developers, that it takes time for all the required facets to come together before they can be thrown in at the deep end.
But Given knows better than anyone that there are exceptions to the rule.
He was just 21 when he leapt ahead of Pavel Srnicek and Shaka Hislop in Newcastle's pecking order, while last term he was dislodged by Joe Hart at Manchester City when Roberto Mancini felt he could not hold back England's future No.1 any longer.
"There is no reason why you can't break through and play at a young age," he said. "I was playing regularly in the first team at Newcastle when I was 21 so there are exceptions to that as well.
"But the older you get the more experience you get and there is no substitution for experience because you've been round the block a few times and you learn from the experiences you've had.
"But you only get that from playing games."
We've seen the composure of Ciaran Clark at the back, the tenacity and invention of Gary Gardner and Barry Bannan in midfield and the sight of attacking wonders Marc Albrighton and Gabby Agbonlahor terrorising opposition defenders.
But there's no reason why the next great success story to emerge from Villa's famed academy system can't be a goalkeeper.
Right now the club's future glovemen couldn't ask for a better role model.
"When I was a younger I was understudy to some great goalkeepers," Given added.
"At Celtic Packie Bonner was the goalkeeper, at Blackburn I worked with Tim Flowers and Bobby Mimms, then going to Newcastle there was Shaka Hislop, Pavel Srnicek and Steve Harper.
"With Ireland as well, with Dean Kiely and Alan Kelly and loads of different keepers, we all got on really well. We all worked to try and improve each other and improve our games.
"If I can pass on some of the things I learned from all of those guys to the young keepers here, hopefully that will be a big help."
blogs, shay given, dan harrison,
More from this bloggerAll blogs
Most popular blogs