Charlton 1, Newcastle 1.
Had Steve Harper sought out Dean Kiely for a consolatory drink in south-east London on Saturday evening, it would have come as little surprise.
Newcastle's second-choice keeper has now gone more than two-and-a-half seasons without a league appearance while Kiely, having grown tired of warming the bench, this year retired from international football with only a handful of senior caps to his name.
The Charlton keeper, who can empathise with Harper's role at St James's Park, was subjected to good-humoured chants of "Ireland's number two" by the visiting United fans as two committed sides battled out a hard-fought 0-0 draw at The Valley.
With Ireland's number one underlining his class at the opposite end by delivering the game's key contribution on the occasion of his 250th appearance as a Magpie, it was plain to see why the pair's careers have yet to reach the heights their respective talents undoubtedly warrant.
Shay Given, characteristically efficient and unassuming in Newcastle's net, showed the full range of his repertoire to ensure that, although his side were often under siege, they preserved the parity they barely deserved.
In doing so, the in-form 27-year-old, making his 108th consecutive top-flight start, kept Sir Bobby Robson's men ahead of Charlton in the fascinating fight to secure Champions League football; the value of that cannot be underestimated.
"When they got through our defence, Charlton found themselves facing a great goalkeeper," admitted Alan Shearer who, having already plundered 15 league goals this season, has become accustomed to being the Magpies' main man.
It takes something extraordinary to outshine Premiership football's most-clinical campaigner.
That it was Given who claimed the plaudits raised few eyebrows within the visitors' dressing room.
"We see Shay every day in training, we know he's a top-drawer keeper," said Shearer, whose hopes of adding to his tally were stifled by the commanding presence of Jonathan Fortune.
"I wouldn't say that was one of the best performances I've seen from him, it's just what we expect. Shay's one of the best goalkeepers around, we appreciate how good he is."
Few will have appreciated Given's resolute display more than Andy O'Brien and Aaron Hughes who, in the absence of the injured Jonathan Woodgate and suspended Titus Bramble, formed an uncertain and unexpected defensive partnership.
Although Robson gave Nikos Dabizas a glowing endorsement on the eve of this game, the Greek international, yet to feature this season, found himself sitting in the stands.
That Steve Caldwell was on the bench said much about United's squad.
Robson preferred to switch Hughes from right-back and field Nolberto Solano in an unfamiliar position in his stead rather than rely on the merits of his fringe performers.
It had been, as the St James's Park boss later admitted, a considerable gamble against a Charlton team well worthy of their top-six status.
Yet, thanks to the efforts of his dependable number one, Robson got away with it.
Initially, the situation looked promising. Solano's attacking instincts added an extra dimension to Newcastle's armoury and, although a string of early crosses from the positive Peruvian didn't get the finishing touch they deserved, the Magpies looked dangerous going forward.
Kiely atoned for dropping a corner at Gary Speed's feet by blocking the Welshman's shot; the diligent Scott Parker, covering his keeper, scrambled Laurent Robert's powerful rebound attempt off the line to spare the Addicks' blushes.
It had been a far from convincing opening by the lethargic Londoners. Yet, once Jason Euell had exposed cracks in the United defence to force an exposed Given into an astute seventh-minute save, the face of the game changed completely.
A back-line short of assurance faced an onslaught. Euell, having previously wasted a golden opportunity, capitalised on a mistake by the harried-looking Hughes to fire against the post; first to react to the rebound, the striker was thwarted by Given.
Better was to come from a player who is on course to break the Premiership's record for consecutive appearances next month, a feat which is testament to his high standards.
When Paolo Di Canio's curling effort was deflected by Euell, Given reacted instantly.
The way in which he recovered to push Graham Stuart's header over his crossbar was applauded by both sets of fans at The Valley. Robert almost rubbed salt in Charlton wounds when, on a rare break in the home barrage, he fired a stinging shot at Kiely.
The Addicks keeper has learnt much from working with Given, as his smart save showed.
The pattern continued for a while after the interval as Charlton's determination to stop their recent slide shone through. Olivier Bernard hacked away an effort from Stuart, while Holland headed over.
And, when Stuart latched on to a precise pass from Radostin Kishishev, only to be denied by the advancing Given, the writing was on the wall.
Any attacking fluency and cohesion quickly drained from the game.
And, while both Robson and Alan Curbishley would both declare themselves happy with a share of the points, no-one will have left The Valley more satisfied than Given.
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|Title Annotation:||Sport NUFC|
|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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