Martin O’Neill has hailed Shane Long’s emergence as a first-choice striker for club and country as an especially timely boost with the European Championship finals now so close.
And, after he’d unveiled his squad for the friendly against the Netherlands yesterday, the Ireland manager went into some detail about what he regards as the crucial improvements he had long wanted to see in the performances of the 29-year-old who, this season with Southampton, has seen his strike rate hit double figures for the first time in the Premier League.
“One of the most important things for a centre-forward is to get hold of the ball, that’s what I was taught,” O’Neill began.
“A manager called Brian Clough, who just happened to be one of the best managers of all time, insisted that his centre-forward get hold of the ball. He doesn’t flick it to anybody particularly, he gets hold of the ball mostly. If he can get hold of it, then he makes it really difficult for the centre-half to get it off him. And it means then that you can start playing further up the pitch.
“This was my message to Shane every single time. ‘Shane, get hold of it, just get hold of the ball as a centre-forward’. Robbie Keane actually can get hold of the ball, and Shane’s other assets, those assets will be magnified if you get hold of it — that’s the point. You’ve got the pace so you don’t have to worry about stealing a yard or two on someone because you’ve got the pace to get in behind.
“That’s a major asset in the game to have. Once you know you can beat people in a run, most centre-halves won’t be able to live with you. Just get the other part of your game sorted out.
“I think Shane has tried to do that. It might not be the most natural thing in the world for him but I think he’s trying to do it. I said to you two and a half years ago about the squad I inherited: Some of the players will make it through and there will be a number that fall by the wayside. But hopefully during the course of time and involvement with us, players can improve. Has Shane gone on to do it? I’m delighted he’s done so.
“I have been in the game a fairly lengthy time, both as a player and a manager, and if I can pass on something, or if Roy Keane can pass things on to the midfield players —things that you think are pretty important — it doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re Daryl Murphy’s age, or Shane Long’s age, or 19, you can do it.
“When Shane was in the squad, at times I wondered if he had a great belief in himself at club level. He was at Reading, West Brom, Hull, not at Hull that long, and he might start to think, ‘do any of the club managers fancy me?’ So maybe he had that to overcome.
“Shane has to take great credit for himself. His goal against Poland, when he was only on the field a few minutes, that gives him a lift, but the Germany game has definitely given him a lift. I don’t mean there was a contentment about Shane thinking, ‘Well, I’m not in the starting line-up, but maybe I can make a real impact as a sub’.
“But now he has taken that on, in the last three or four months, and if he’s going into a tournament — please heavens he stays fit for another game or two — but if he stays fit until the Euros, that can only be good news for us.”
O’Neill said yesterday that it is still his plan to name his tournament squad of 23 on May 28 —the day after the match against the Dutch at the Aviva — although he noted that he might yet avail of the fact that the Uefa deadline actually extends to 11pm on the night of the final warm-up game against Belarus at Turner’s Cross on May 31.
Even allowing for heightened security concerns in France, all appears to be going according to plan in terms of Ireland’s logistical preparations for the tournament, with the manager revealing that the pitch at their training base in Versailles has been reseeded. “Our man has gone out and had a look at it and is pretty well pleased with the way things are going,” he said.
As to managing the squad’s downtime in the run-up to the opening game against Sweden, O’Neill made it clear that, while the players will be given time off to unwind and see family and friends during their preparations in Dublin and Cork, similar opportunities will be strictly rationed once they touch down in France.
“We are there to try and compete,” he stressed. “This is a big, big competition. It might not come around for a number of players again. Ever. So you might as well give it everything.
“So when we go there, sorry, it’s the games. Something will crop up, a family issue, that I will certainly allow a player to deal with. But, generally speaking, I don’t really want three or four children running across my path and finding out that they belong to somebody who has missed two goals against Sweden (laughs).”
Superb goals for Chelsea against Spurs and Liverpool would appear to suggest that last year’s Premier League Player of the Year, Eden Hazard, has got his mojo well and truly back after a difficult season.
And with Belgium among Ireland’s opponents at the Euros, that could spell trouble for Martin O’Neill’s men in France, as the manager readily acknowledged yesterday.
“I see Hazard being just behind the likes of Messi and Ronaldo,” he said. “You’re talking about Suarez and Hazard being on a par. And now it’s almost as if he’s gearing himself up for the Euros. I saw him against Liverpool — exceptional. And he was brilliant when he came on against Tottenham Hotspur; he changed the course of the match at Stamford Bridge. He’s got that confidence and swagger back. So he would be a definite concern.”
And while O’Neill acknowledges that the loss of Man City captain Vincent Kompany is a setback for the Belgians, he thinks the blow will be softened by their defensive strength in depth.
“Kompany is a really great player, no question about that. But I think they’ve got reasonably decent replacements who are playing in the Premier League. Big players, the boys who are playing for Spurs. And Vermaelen who’s playing in Spain. Do I think that Kompany will be a loss for Belgium? Yes he will be but these are more than adequate replacements.
“I think Belgium, individually, have got a lot of talent all over the pitch. Sometimes they’re compared with the Dutch side who’ve got loads and loads of talent and maybe sometimes don’t produce it. I don’t see this.”
Shay Given (Stoke), Darren Randolph (West Ham), David Forde (Millwall), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Derby), Paul McShane (Reading), Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa), Richard Keogh (Derby), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Alex Pearce (Bristol City), Shane Duffy (Blackburn), Marc Wilson (Stoke), Stephen Ward (Burnley), Aiden McGeady (Sheffield Wednesday), James McClean (West Brom), Glenn Whelan (Stoke), James McCarthy (Everton), Jeff Hendrick (Derby), David Meyler (Hull), Stephen Quinn (Reading), Darron Gibson (Everton), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich, Eunan O’Kane (Bournemouth), Anthony Pilkington (Cardiff), Robbie Brady (Norwich), Jonathan Walters (Stoke), Jonathan Hayes (Aberdeen), Callum O’Dowda (Oxford), Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Shane Long (Southampton), David McGoldrick (Ipswich), Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids), Daryl Murphy (Ipswich).
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