Kevin Long embraces challenge for club and country

Kevin Long appreciates he’s never going to reign supreme in a golf competition amongst his Burnley teammates but he’s well on course to winning a Premier League starting slot from Sean Dyche.

The Cork native finished last season as first-choice for club and country, a stark contract to the previous seven seasons when he couldn’t earn a slot in either team. The hope now is that Martin O’Neill’s decision to thrust Long into the side for the World Cup qualifier against Austria on his competitive debut enhances his club situation too.

Next month will test if his elevation was just merely a cameo when the Premier League returns and the international campaign reaches the penultimate double-header stage against Georgia and joint-leaders Serbia.

Right now, Long sees no reason to worry about losing his spot in one or both camps.

Anxiety is foolhardy in the context of the serious injuries he’s recovered from to reach this point close to his 27th birthday next month.

That’s why it didn’t cost him a thought to ditch the team’s golf-day midstream at the luxurious Carton House in Kildare last week.

Dyche sanctioned the outing to break the four days of gruelling pre-season training but Long wasn’t there to improve his handicap.

Retaining his berth in the heart of the Clarets’ defence for the Premier League opener at Stamford Bridge against champions Chelsea was his sole focus.

“I had one game of golf and walked back in after nine holes, so that will tell you how well I played,” admitted the Ballyphehane native.

“I just want to build on what happened towards the end of last season. The manager (Dyche) congratulated me on my international breakthrough and told me to just keep going. The manager doesn’t make promises to anyone. He’ll pick the team judging on how I do training and the pre-season matches.”

The recent departure of Michael Keane to Everton leaves a hole in the Burnley defence which Dyche has so far opted against filling with an expensive replacement. That can only be good news for Long, who started the final games of the season, as he jostles with Ben Mee and James Tarkowski for the two places on offer.

“Michael Keane and Ben had been the central-defensive partnership for two seasons, playing almost every single game,” noted Long.

“They were two of our best players but, with Keano gone, there’s a place up for grabs. There’s three of us battling and realistically, the manager will probably go out and get another one. It’s up to me and the others to prove we’re good enough to be in the team.”

Long’s international exploits at the end of the season, making his first appearance in a green jersey against Mexico, Uruguay, and Austria, meant him missing the wedding of his brother Danny in Marbella. It was a whirlwind period for the family and Long confesses he’s still absorbing the scale of his upsurge.

“My family were back from Spain after the Austria game and I was well and truly forgiven by the time I met them in Cork,” he laughed.

“Everything happened for me so fast that it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve been at Burnley for eight years now and as a professional footballer you are there to play games.

“I feel like an international now. The manager has faith in me because I obviously did something right on the training ground for him to put me into such a big game. There’s a lot of tough games coming up for Burnley and Ireland but these occasions are the reason we play football. I’m looking forward to a busy few weeks.”

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