Given rates Hong Kong in the premier league for fans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


This isn't the first time Shay Given, Aston Villa's new goalkeeper, has been in Hong Kong on football business, but nevertheless he was still amazed by the support shown by local fans this week.

Villa aren't in the same bracket as global brands such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, but the club are making concerted efforts to expand their overseas profile.

Local fans were out in force to greet them at the airport last Sunday and again the following day when they launched their new kit. Club officials admitted even they were a little surprised at the turnout at a sports store in Mong Kok, given that Chelsea were landing at about the same time.

'It just goes to show how big the Premier League is around the world,' Givensaid. 'You think it's just in England, but when you come to these places you see.

'When we arrived at the airport it was rammed with people wanting to get a picture and it just shows how global the Premier League is. Even in the hotel room you stick the TV on and there's two or three games on, repeats. People just love watching the Premier League so it is fantastic to see it being promoted in that way.'

Given said of the team's reception at Hong Kong Stadium: 'It was fantastic. What a great turnout.'

A combined total of nearly 80,000 saw Villa's matches against Blackburn and Chelsea at the Barclays Asia Trophy, albeit the majority were primarily interested in the Londoners. 'I didn't expect that many to be honest, so that just shows how big the Premier League is in Hong Kong.'

Villa have built up a core of support partly through their regular participation in the Hong Kong Soccer
Sevens tournament.

Some fans have followed young players like Gabriel Agbonlahor, Marc Albrighton and Nathan Delfouneso, who starred in that tournament, all the way into the first team.

A couple of diehards even travelled to Denmark this summer to see the latter pair in action for England Under-21s, and were rewarded by the club this week by being given exclusive access to a closed training session to meet their heroes.

The club have been trying to tap into that fanatical loyalty this week with community events, such as visiting children's homes and public coaching sessions, but they know nothing breeds support like winning trophies. League and European Cup winners in the 1980s, the last time Villa lifted silverware was the League Cup in 1996.

'If you're a successful team people want to see the team who've won the trophies then pass on that support to the next generation.

'If we can win some trophies they'll want to follow you,' said Given, who was speaking at the Barclays Premier League Community Festival in Wong Tai Sin. 'I see Chelsea have got huge support out here. They've got a huge fan base and that's probably from winning the league.'

Villa endured an up-and-down season last term, spending half the season without a permanent manager after Gerard Houllier's illness and flirting with relegation before eventually finishing mid-table.

A trophy might be unlikely, but Given insists that winning a place in Europe must be the minimum target.

'The lads finished ninth last year and hopefully we can improve on that. You want to improve every season and hopefully we can get above that. There's a new manager in charge now as well [former Birmingham boss Alex McLeish] and all the lads are trying to impress him, so it's important we get off to a good start.

'There are no easy games in the Premier League.Hopefully,Europe is a realistic possibility. We've got to aim for that at least. It's a realistic aim and you've got to set your targets high to get there.

'We've got cup competitions as well and we can give them a real good go. On a cup day, anything can happen - as the manager proved last year by beating Arsenal in the [Carling Cup] final with Birmingham.'

Despite being one of the best goalkeepers in England for about 15 years, Given's own medal collection is embarrassingly light for a player of his talent - only a first division winner's medal with Sunderland, a couple of FA Cup silvers with Newcastle and an FA Cup winner's medal with Manchester City.

After 12 years and over 350 games at Newcastle, Given's loyalty wore out. The move to City with their new billions was supposed finally to deliver the trophies he deserved, but after one season England goalkeeper Joe Hart was given the No 1jersey by Roberto Mancini. It's a cruel irony that after all Given's acrobatic efforts over the years, that FA Cup medal was won after he sat on the bench for every minute of the season.

Given is not the only talented player to have fallen 'victim' to City's scattergun signing policy - if you can call someone who earns millions of pounds a year a victim - with the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Wayne Bridge all unwanted by the club but on too much money for others to sign them. The Donegal man was just glad to escape after enduring 'some difficult times'.

'It was important that I get back on track and get playing again in the Premier League,' said Ireland's most-capped player of all time.

'I missed it last year, but I'm delighted to be back at a big club and have a real chance of doing well.

'From a personal level, I just want to play football. The reason I went to City was to do well and play football there. When you're not playing it's frustrating and this is the ideal club for me.

'I haven't played a lot of football and it's just nice to get some match practice again. The most important thing is getting involved in the next couple of weeks because we've got some big games coming up.'

After playing just his second and third games for the club here in Hong Kong, Given is still getting to know his new teammates, but initial impressions have been good.

A notable feature of the Asia Trophy was the willingness of centrehalves James Collins and Richard Dunne to throw themselves into tackles, despite the 'friendly' nature of the games - a heartening sight for any goalkeeper.

'It's been good. I'm obviously still getting to know the players, although I knew a few beforehand - [Ireland colleagues] Richard Dunne and Stephen Ireland, Habib Beye [from Newcastle], Ciaran Clark's played the last few games for Ireland - so I think that helps you to settle in the changing room as well.

'Collins and [Stephen] Warnock and Richard Dunne got some great blocks in [against Blackburn] and it just shows the spirit in the team - the will not to give away a goal in the last line of defence with some last- ditch tackling.

'We've got two good guys in the sense that they'd put their lives on the line. I suppose they're old- fashioned defenders in a sense. They tackle and head the ball clear and anything after that is a bonus.'

At 35, the five-year deal Given signed after his GBP3.5 million move might not be his last, he insists.

'I don't know. I'd like to play as long as possible. I'll tell you in five years' time how I'm feeling!

'But I do feel goalkeepers can go on a lot longer. It's been proven over the last few years with [Brad] Friedel, [Edwin] Van der Sar and even [Mark] Schwarzer. People like that have all been playing well into their thirties and even their forties with Friedel going to Tottenham on a two-year contract. So I'd like to think I can keep going and see what age I am when I finish.

'I've not thought too far ahead but I've started doing my coaching badges now so it's something maybe further down the line I can get involved with.'


The number of caps won by Shay Given for the Republic of Ireland, making him the national side's most-capped player