By Roy Keane’s exacting standards, you could say he was almost gushing in his praise for Shane Long earlier this week.
Keane declared that the 29-year-old is not only hitting a career peak as a striker for club and country but that, with Robbie Keane now embarking on his last lap in the game, Long is in the perfect place to take over as the main man for goals in the green shirt.
With those encouraging words ringing in his ears, you might have expected Long to graciously reciprocate when we offered him the opportunity at Fota Island yesterday.
But not a bit of it.
Turns out Keano is way down Longy’s pecking order of top Irish sporting talent.
Mind you, it might just be worth clarifying that it was hurling we asked him about.
Roy, Robbie Keane, Daryl Murphy and David Meyler were all among those spotted pucking a ball around before training sessions at Fota this week, and seeing as how Shane Long was a tip-top — or even a top Tipp — player in his youth, we figured his expert eye should provide a reliable barometer of the handiest man with a hurley in the Irish camp.
“I think Meyler’s got a bit — after me, of course,” he replied.
And that was it. So for his own good, we thought we’d better prompt him
And, er, the boy from Mayfield, Shane?
“Ah yeah, Roy’s got a bit as well.”
Whew. Close shave.
Much of the recent analysis of Long’s belated flowering as a first-rate striker has, naturally, focused on the managers and coaches he works with for Southampton and Ireland. But Long believes that a grounding in the sport which preoccupied him until the age of 16 — and thus made him a late developer as a footballer — still stands to him in the Premier League and on the international stage.
“The hurling and the cut and thrust of it have helped me,” he reflects. “I was the youngest of four kids and that helped too as I was getting battered around the place a bit when we’d play sports (laughs). But hurling is a real contact sport and that helps to build you up. And I like to put myself about when I play up front and let the defender know you’re there and that they’re in a game.
“When I went over to England first I think it was the natural ability that got me over there. But then they started to coach me and — not taking away from the coaches I had here at all — but the kids over there had been training since they were six and seven-year-olds, and I was playing the hurling until I was 16, so it took me a bit of time to catch up and to learn the game properly.
“I’m lucky. I am 29 now and I have had some brilliant managers. I had Steve Coppell at the start at Reading, Brendan Rodgers and Brian McDermott, Giovanni Trapattoni and now Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane here with the national team. I’ve picked up little bits from everyone and it has really developed me as a player. I guess I probably am now hitting the peak of my career but I’d hope to have another four or five years at the top.”
Shane feels he owes a particular debt to the influence of Saints boss and Dutch legend Ronald Koeman, a manager who has had his faith in Long repaid this season by the striker breaking the double figures goals barrier for the first time in his years in England’s top-flight.
“The gaffer at Southampton has given me a lot of confidence every day at training and on the Saturdays when you know you are going to start,” he says, before identifying aspects of his game which he feels have improved.
“I think awareness has a lot to do with it for me and I have worked on that side of it. I was always able to make those runs in behind and I had the pace but now I know where the defender is even before the ball comes to me, and that’s a big help.
“Before, I was probably half-looking to see where the defender was and, at the same time, trying to control the ball, and it was breaking down a lot. But that’s improved.
“The gaffer here with Ireland made a big thing about my hold-up play and that developed my game as well. Every manager I have worked with has helped to develop my game in different areas and improved me as a footballer.
“You need to be versatile as a striker, and if you keep running in behind them, they will start to run in there before you, so you have to mix it up and I tend to do that in matches now. I have learned that over the last four or five years.
“I’ve really worked hard at it and it’s beginning to come together for me now.
“When I got in ahead of (Italian striker Graziano) Pelle at Southampton, the team was struggling a bit at the time and the gaffer wanted to change it up. I had been training well since the Germany game and he stuck me in and gave me a chance.
“I didn’t really click for one or two games but he stuck by me and then the goals started to flow and I felt good. I kept kicking on. I think he liked that option of me upfront testing them in behind or, against other teams, me and Graziano so we’d have the big man and me trying to stretch them.
“He’s developed me, there’s no denying it. Playing out on the wing last season developed my game as well, brought a new side to it, got me on the ball a bit more, coming short to feet. And that helped me to play as a striker as well.”
Still, there’s a limit to the credit that any of Long’s managers deserve. So, when he’s asked at one point if Koeman has “made” him, the comic timing of his reply is spot-on: “I think my mam and dad would have something to say about that!”
Of course, no conversation with Long can be considered complete anymore without returning him to that unforgettable goal against Germany at the Aviva which, overnight, transformed him into a national hero. But did it feel like a game-changer, in terms of his Irish career, to the man himself?
“I’m not too sure,” he muses. “I came on with 25 minutes to go and the gaffer just said ‘go on and test them in behind — you can see that they’re slow on the left side — and try and change the game for us’. They were a bit tired and I’m quick and I was fresh-legged, and I managed to get the goal. I took a lot of confidence from that. And all the hype about that goal does help, I suppose, but I just went away from it and tried to focus on my game.”
Ultimately, Long is of the opinion that striking prowess comes down not to one game or one goal or even one manager, but rather to the accumulated boost in a player’s confidence and sharpness which comes from being a regular first-choice on the field of play.
And which, in his case, has turned him into the kind of hot property who is reportedly attracting the interest of Spurs and Liverpool, among others.
“It’s such a confidence thing as a striker,” Long concludes. “You play week in, week out and everything just seems to happen. You go out on the pitch with that added edge and you’re just flying, taking a touch without thinking about it. I have felt good since December onwards and, hopefully, I can continue like that.”
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