Misfiring Long desperate to gain the Keane edge
Hull striker confident he can still be centre stage despite fluffing lines
Published 27/05/2014 | 02:30
A few hours after Ireland's desultory exercise in the art of goalscoring against Turkey, Robbie Keane's ongoing love affair with the onion sack some 4,500 miles away in Dallas brought home a few harsh truths to Martin O'Neill's men.
And in so doing – or in this case not – he was ceded the opportunity to deny Irish supporters, and their manager, the pressing need to so desperately pine for the country's often unfairly maligned record goalscorer.
Long, as is characteristic for an earthy former Tipp minor hurler who portrays none of the widespread excessive narcissism of his profession, was quick to absorb the culpability for his recurring difficulties at this level of the game.
"I'm to blame for missing a few of those chances," he said after his horrendous miss from in front of goal, the type of chance snaffled so routinely by the absent Keane, cost Ireland the chance to plant a firm footprint in Sunday's aching Turkish defeat.
"Obviously you're disappointed when you miss chances. I know I did everything right.
"I took a touch past the defender and the 'keeper made a good save. It's not something I'll dwell on. I'll train during the week and hopefully I'll make an impact if I get the chance to put it right there."
If he doesn't get that chance, others will, particularly if Wes Hoolahan can maintain his development as an accurate supply line, as he demonstrated so proficiently when Jon Walters reprised his impact role from the bench.
"I really enjoy playing with Wes up front, he's a great player and he's always looking for that pass, it suits me down to the ground," added Long.
"Wes always wants the ball as well and finds himself in that position where he can get it and turn.
"It's brilliant for a striker, especially when you're up there on your own. It would be nice to get a goal and really make an impact. Other than that, I thought I did okay.
"You can see there are a lot of options for the gaffer, with Daryl Murphy and Jon coming on, scoring a great goal.
"Robbie's not here and then there's Kevin Doyle coming back. There are a few options for the manager. Hopefully I get another chance and get to prove my point and get to fight my way into the starting team."
While Keane's role in the team may form a tactical conundrum for some, his proficiency in paying down the only currency that matters in the sport – goals – demands that there will be only one other option available when Ireland tackle Georgia in September.
"Jonny Walters, Daryl Murphy, Kevin, myself, there's a few options," mused Long, currently operating at an unspectacular one-in-four strike rate at club level.
"There's Anthony Stokes there as well. It depends on what the gaffer sees fit for the day. He's given me a few chances now and I've done well without scoring so I need to put that right. If those do go in, I've been very happy with my performances."
Of course, he may have had the opportunity for a goal had an early penalty been awarded, a non-decision that caused as much grief within Irish ranks as their ongoing profligacy in front of goal.
"I've got to be careful what I say," he reflected. "I thought it was a definite pen but it was hard for the ref to give it because he would have had to send the player off too.
"If we get the penalty and go 1-0 up, it's a whole different game. But look, it's only a friendly and playing against 11 men, we really tested ourselves as well.
"We had other chances: I had one saved, James McClean had a header. Had we got one, things could have been a whole lot different. We can always take positives for it, I thought we played really well."
When conversion rates at one end dip alarmingly, though, the pressure not to concede at the other end is multiplied.
Ireland still feel like a team who extend a disproportionate amount of effort to score when, for the opposition, it seems palpably much easier to clinically execute their own chances.
"Sometimes teams seem to get one chance against us and score and it's not like they've been beating our goal down and the 'keeper is keeping us in the game," lamented Stephen Ward.
"They are scoring goals from the one or two chances they get. That's the disappointing thing. We're creating chances but I think it's only a matter of time before we turn those chances into goals and turn results around."
Often, supporters have sniffed smugly at the seemingly scruffy nature of Keane's phenomenal international output; however, there are no descriptions appended to the 62 goals he has snaffled in 131 appearances.
One senses, and O'Neill was reluctant to overtly demur when the thesis was presented to his acute legal mind, that Keane would have slotted Long's effort without a moment's hesitation.
Even if some observers might carp that 'anyone' could replicate the feat, Long's woe roundly disputed that particular theory.
"He might have done," was O'Neill's measured response. "Still, putting the ball in the net is difficult. Maybe it's not as hard as we make it out to be but our return for the number of really decent chances we've created in the two games obviously should be a lot, lot better."
Asked did the exercise reinforce Keane's indispensability to the squad, O'Neill was less circumspect. "I would have to agree with that, absolutely. You get a feeling Robbie might have put one of those chances away."
A ruthless assessment of an elusive art. And a reminder that Keane, still, remains its most ruthless exponent in green.