The sight of Shane Long standing poised on the sideline as the fourth official holds up his number is nothing new to Republic of Ireland supporters, but if a stadium can take a collective breath, then it may have happened in Turner’s Cross last Tuesday week.
Long was the one fully fit forward in Martin O’Neill’s squad what with Robbie Keane, Jonathan Walters, Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick all dealing with injuries or struggling for sharpness — and even Long had suffered a gashed knee against the Dutch four days before.
Not only that, but his form with Southampton and Ireland had been such throughout the season that he was clearly the most potent weapon in Martin O’Neill’s arsenal.
Yet here he was being risked for almost 25 minutes in a meaningless friendly against Belarus in Cork.
His impact was immediate, of course.
His deft touch and layoff set up Stephen Ward for Ireland’s consolation goal and that trademark pace and energy stretched a visiting defence that had until then dealt more or less comfortably with a lethargic Irish effort.
Long being Long, his performance wasn’t without its foibles. The decision to shoot shortly after the Irish goal when a trio of colleagues were haring up in support against a scrambling defence was a difficult mistake to pardon.
All told, it made for a pretty good summation of his portfolio but opinion is unanimous that this European Championship is his time to shine nine years into a senior international career that began under Steve Staunton in that hair-raising 2-1 win in San Marino.
There have been times before when he has looked set to push for the role of leading man — his exceptional header against England at Wembley three years ago stands out — but Robbie Keane’s longevity and Long’s own inconsistencies have so far postponed that billing.
Not any longer. He will take centre stage in France having provided the usual cameos in Poland.
“I was a bit of a fringe player four years ago. I think I got about 10 or 15 minutes on the pitch in total, but it was still an amazing experience and I have learned from it. I knew straight after even the second game, the disappointed heads in the dressing room…
“We knew that was more or less it, after the two years’ hard work. So I take experience from it. I know it can be all over so quickly, so I want to make sure, especially in the Sweden game, that first game, that we start off on the right foot.”
Long’s memory deceives him. He bagged 15 minutes in the opener against Croatia in 2012, and another 25 in the deadrubber against Italy in the same Poznan venue, but it can’t be easy keeping tabs of his appearances off the bench such has been their regularity.
He appeared in nine of the Republic’s dozen games on the road to France and yet started just the one, away to Poland. The injury he picked up in Warsaw caused him to sit out the first leg of the play-off with Bosnia-Herzegovina and come on with 35 minutes to go in the second in Dublin.
The consequence is that O’Neill has not yet had the opportunity to make Long his attacking focal point since the era-defining and regime-saving goal against the Germans last September. The Tipperary man actually goes into the tournament having played fewer minutes in qualifying than Daryl Murphy.
The Ipswich Town player’s failure to break his duck 21 games into his international career has been well charted but Ireland as a team have struggled to find the net. Take away the 11 managed against Gibraltar and they scored at a rate of just one per game in Group D.
Robbie Keane and Jonathan Walters contributed most with five each, but Keane’s all came against Gibraltar and Walters claimed one for every 180 minutes he played. Long, by way of contrast, netted once for every 90 minutes he featured and two of his three came against Germany and Poland.
His very presence at this level is unlikely given the oft-told hold that hurling had on him through to his mid-teens and, in that, he mirrors the team itself as it scrambled through the back door to the party from a seemingly hopeless position last summer.
“People wrote us off. After we drew with Scotland, everyone was saying it was a three-horse race and Ireland were out of it. It really spurred us to go on. Of course, we relied on a few other results to go our way but we still had to capitalise on our games.
“Just to qualify is an amazing feeling. We’ve been here once before and we didn’t really perform the way we should have or the way we can, and we’ve been regretting it for four years. So hopefully we can put that right this time.”
He will go a long way towards determining that himself.
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