Shane Long prepared to wait to be the established first-choice striker

If Leicester City as champions was once the most improbable punt of the season then, at the other end of the gambling spectrum, pretty much the safest bet in all of football had to be that Shane Long would pick up the Goal Of The Year gong at the annual FAI awards ceremony last Sunday.
Shane Long prepared to wait to be the established first-choice striker

Yes, Robbie Brady’s lovely strike away to Bosnia certainly illuminated the fog in Zenica but it would have taken something entirely off the chart to eclipse the goal which rocked the world champions, the Aviva and the nation.

Consigned once again to a starting place on the bench on that never to be forgotten night in Dublin last October, Long had used his watching brief well before being sprung into action against the German defence..

“I knew their left centre-back was a bit slower than the right — the left full-back as well,” he says.

“They were playing a bit high up the pitch as they were obviously trying to get the win, and there was a lot of space in behind. When I came on I tried to get my head into the game, and tried to test them in behind. There were a few chances where they just didn’t come through but it was a great ball from (Darren) Randolph. You have to keep focused. Obviously I was frustrated on the bench at not playing.

Ah, that old frustration. The super sub tag is a bittersweet one for Long: the ‘super’ is fine, it’s the other part that grates. Yet he says he understands why he has struggled to establish himself as a first-choice striker under Martin O’Neill.

“When you have Robbie Keane there, who has scored 60-odd international goals, the manager wants those goals brought into his team. Jonny Walters is flying. Daryl Murphy is flying in the Championship. There are a lot of options for the manager.

“It depends on who we are playing: he might want to stick the big lads up front, hold the ball up. I feel like I have proved myself when I have come on. But everyone has to prove themselves. At the time I wasn’t playing week in week out at club level so I felt like I had done well when I had played with Ireland. But the gaffer had a different idea of how he wanted to play the game and I had to be patient and wait for my chance.” Now, with very good timing as the Euros loom large, opportunity is also knocking for Long under Ronald Koeman at Southampton.

“I got an injury around Christmas time but ever since then I have been in the starting XI and playing 90 minutes most weeks,” he observes. “As a striker it’s massive to have the confidence that you are going to play every week. Once you get the cobwebs out of your system you fly in games, and I am really enjoying my football at the moment.”

Does he have a preferred role?

“I don’t mind playing up front by myself, as long as I have a ball player in behind me, the likes of Wes (Hoolahan). And we have a few at Southampton as well, who can get on the ball and run at defences. Lately it’s been me and Graz [Pelle] up front for Southampton and I am getting experience out on the wing of a three [man attack] as well. My game is progressing at Southampton, the manager there is showing me different ways of playing football, so there are different options for me when I come in at international level. If the gaffer wants me to play up front or out wide, I am always ready for that.”

There’s been more than a hint of have-boots-will-travel about Long’s career – not that that was ever his intention – but he certainly gives the impression now of living life to the full on England’s south coast.

“I was settled at West Brom and they wanted me to move on,” he reflects. “I was settled at Hull and all of a sudden Southampton came knocking and two days later I was gone. I am enjoying my time at Southampton, I love living there and my two girls love it there.

“There are two flights a day from Dublin so my family can come over. It’s a nice place to live but the football is good and the club is good.”

And, off the back of that recent comeback victory over Liverpool, the prospects are looking even sunnier for Long and his fellow Saints. The Champions League, the Tipp man is convinced, is now a real target.

“Definitely,” he says. “After the game, I was talking to some of the directors of the club and they are aiming for that, rightly so. We have a few tough games: Man City, Tottenham away, Leicester who are top of the league. But it’s mad as we could lose to the bottom team in the league as well - it’s one of those seasons where anyone can win.

“We have a good enough squad to do that [qualify for the Champions League]. We are playing some good football and are a threat from all over the pitch. We have a sound defence with Fraser (Foster) in goal: it’s built for a good campaign. And because a few of the big teams struggling might create a path for us.”

That’s one European target; for the other he hopes to be wearing the green and having a much more rewarding experience than at Euro 2012 when his involvement was limited to coming off the bench in the defeats to Croatia and Italy.

“I only got 10-15 minutes and it was disappointing to look back on that and not have more of an impact on how we got on,” he says. “Hopefully I do well at club level and come into these finals on a streak and the gaffer will have a headache over whether to start me or not. Hopefully I have done enough over the campaign to show that I will be a big part of the tournament over there.”

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