Kevin Long: My job is to prove I’m the top man for the job

Kevin Long is the only Corkman in the Ireland squad to grace the Premier League this season, but his journey from the Connolly Road to Turner’s Cross, and further afield to Burnley’s Turf Moor, has taken in a multitude of highs and lows. 

Kevin Long: My job is to prove I’m the top man for the job

Here, the centre-back talks to John Fallon about his career, from earning €100 per week at a Cork City incarnation nearing extinction to marking Romelu Lukaku in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford

Q: With Burnley out of the FA Cup, your manager, Sean Dyche, brought the squad away to Portugal last week. Was it the right time to break for a training camp?

A: Yes, I think so. We haven’t won any of our last 10 Premier League matches and, although we drew against some of the big teams over that period, our performance levels had probably dropped off lately.

There wasn’t much happening around the Manchester area last week, so it was nice to get away to the sun and clear the head.

Q: Despite the lack of victories, Burnley are still seventh in the table, coming towards the end of February. For a team that has always battled relegation in the top-flight, that would be a good finishing position.

A: Of course, we’re still in a good place, so it’s important that we pick up points during the final third of the season. That starts with the game against Southampton, today.

Q: On a personal level, you’ve managed to start most of the games since the beginning of the December. Competition for places in Premier League teams, these days, is extremely intense, so how to deal with the challenges it brings?

A: That’s the reason I’m here and, I have to say, the challenge is one I enjoy. For every game, myself, Ben Mee and James Tarwowski battle for the two central-defensive spots and I’ve played quite a lot of the games lately.

My job is to prove I’m the top man for the job and ensure I stay in that team. Since coming to Burnley (in 2009), I had to wait a long time for my first Premier League start, towards the end of last season, and that makes me appreciate the opportunity more.

I really want to keep my place.

Q: Over that recent run of games, you’ve played in the draws against the top-two teams in the division, Manchester United and City. Does the fact that your major breakthrough came last season, at the age of 26, ease any nerves, before going out to mark the likes of Lukaku?

A: To be honest, I’ve never felt nervous before any game in my career, not even making my competitive Ireland debut, against Austria, in June.

The way I see it is that the bigger occasions require more concentration and that’s my priority. I don’t have time to be getting worried. It is nice to play against the likes of him (Lukaku), as I consider this experience as a learning curve.

There’s no better way to learn than on the job, against the top teams and players.

Q: After Owen Coyle recruited you, in 2009, two other permanent managers, in Eddie Howe and Brian Laws, came in, without giving you much of an opportunity. What do you feel convinced the current gaffer, Sean Dyche, to trust you in such a major situation as the Premier League?

A: Well, Sean was a centre-back himself, in his playing career, and I learned a lot from him on the training ground. I think our team probably had a soft side to it, when he arrived (in 2012) and it was an area he worked hard on.

Some managers over-complicate things, but Sean kept it simple, by focussing on the fundamentals of the game. That suited me and I think we’ve worked well together.

Q: You touched on the long wait for the breakthrough to come, delayed, of course, by the number of injuries you suffered. What was the lowest point and how difficult was it, physically and mentally, to overcome those setbacks?

A: The worst moment came on New Year’s Day of 2015, when I suffered a serious knee injury, not long after coming on for my Premier League debut, against Newcastle.

I’d finally got my chance and then this injury ruled me out of action for a full year. There was a lot of rehabilitation required, coming in every day, spending hours in the gym, regaining my strength. That was tough-going.

Thankfully, I had a lot of support from my family, in Cork, and the people at the club. Dean Marney was recovering from a similar injury, so was Sam Vokes, and we used to bounce off each other, which helped pass the time while our teammates were out on the pitch.

Q: After getting back fit, and playing the final three games of last season, you managed to win a couple of senior caps, your first-ever appearances for your country. The campaign ended badly in the play-off, but are you glad Martin O’Neill turned down Stoke City to remain in the job?

A: I can’t thank Martin enough for the faith he showed in me, so I’m delighted he’s staying. A lot of huff was made of the Denmark game, because of the scoreline, but we did well in the campaign and there will be new players coming into the squad, over the next few months. Martin isn’t afraid to put players into the team, even if they’re young.

Q: You were only a youngster yourself, when thrown into the City first-team, as a teen. It was during the Tom Coughlan era, when the team bus bringing the squad to Inchicore was delayed until the company’s overdue bill was settled. How do you look back on that experience, now?

A: Growing up so close to Turner’s Cross, playing for my hometown club was my dream, so I wasn’t distracted by what went on off the pitch.

Unlike many of the other players, who had families to feed and mortgages to pay, I was still living in my parents’ house, delighted to be getting €100 per week for playing the game I loved.

That set me off to where I am today.

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