READING’S decision to hand Shane Long a four-year contract speaks volumes for the club’s belief in the young Irish striker.
When it comes to the boys from the County Reading, most of the focus may be on Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt, but the 20-year-old from Tipperary is catching up fast. His debut goal for Ireland, a header against Bolivia in Boston, brought last season to a satisfactory close and, at the start of this one, he’s making the most of the opportunity afforded him at club level by injury to Leroy Lita and Dave Kitson’s punishment for being sent off against Manchester United.
Says Long: “You wouldn’t wish that on anyone, especially Leroy’s injury and Dave getting suspended for three games after missing most of last season, but when it does happen you have to take your chance and, hopefully, I’ve done that in the last two games and will continue to do that.”
Although his goal in Boston in May was given, literally, a helping hand by the hapless Bolivian keeper, Long understandably describes hitting the back of the net for his country for the first time as “an amazing feeling”. But raw though he may as an international, he has already experienced the pressure that can come with representing your country at the highest level. After all, here is a man who made his debut on a certain traumatic night in San Marino.
“Yeah it was definitely hard,” he grimaces. “They were a hard side to play against. It was horrible, every time you turned around there were two or three players tackling you and kicking you. You couldn’t settle on the ball, but I suppose that’s what you come to expect in international football. It was a good learning curve for me. Before the game I was excited I guess to be playing up front alongside Robbie Keane, one of my idols when I was a kid. I suppose the occasion got to me a little bit, but we came away with a win in the end. I can’t complain, I’ve two first team caps and two wins so it’s been good for me so far and, hopefully, I can keep it going.”
Kevin Doyle is often talked about as English football’s bargain of the new century, but getting Long as part of the same deal from Cork City was almost a case of buy one, get one free from Reading’s point of view. (For the record, Doyle cost €115,000 and Long €25,500). And this at a time when the height of the player’s ambition was to make an impression in the League of Ireland.
“My goal then was to get into the Cork team really and try and impress there,” he says. “When Pat Dolan was there he was telling me big things could happen. You dream of that, but you never think it’s going to come true. I’ve been lucky, I’ve caught the breaks and, hopefully, I can keep it going.”
Certainly Reading are in no doubt that they lucked out with Long. And, given the player’s previous achievements as an up and coming hurler, don’t be surprised if the club’s scouts are maintaining a watchful eye on Ireland’s native codes. The Royals’ chief talent-spotter, Brian McDermott, says: “Shane didn’t start playing football until he was 13 or 14, so to get where he is now in that time is incredible. But it does make you wonder how many Gaelic footballers and hurlers could make the transition into football. I find the whole idea fascinating.
“I’m convinced that playing these Irish sports toughens you up. It’s the ideal preparation for football. You also need good hand-to-eye co-ordination and all our Irish players have that.”
Given changed circumstances, Shane Long might have been walking down that September road just now. Instead, he has one eye on tomorrow’s friendly in Denmark and the other on the European Championship qualifiers next month. And the breakthrough still causes him to pinch himself.
“Every time I get a selection or get called up I still get goose bumps,” he says.
“I had my fingers crossed that I’d be in this squad — once you get a taste of it you want it to continue. Yeah, it’s definitely a surreal feeling every time I play a game, but, hopefully, I can put on that green jersey a few more times.”
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