Long time coming
Published 15/01/2010 | 05:00
IF Wednesday was the beginning of the end for Rafa Benitez, the hope for Irish fans is that the dramatic events at Anfield represent a fresh start for his tormentor on the night, Shane Long; the end of a lull which has threatened to derail a promising career.
This was supposed to be a huge season for the Tipperary man, who was awarded the No 9 jersey at Reading after the departure of Kevin Doyle and expected to make the progression from regular sub to main man. He was even installed as an early favourite to be the Championship's top scorer.
Alas, anyone who invested in that betting opportunity has done their money. Long is waiting for his first league goal of the campaign and the 100th-minute header at Anfield ended a drought which dates back to a brace against Norwich last April.
Injuries have got in the way this term, and Wednesday was just his 15th outing of the campaign. Significantly, nine of those, including the cup upset, have come as a replacement. He has failed to shed the impact sub berth.
Considering Reading are just two points clear of the relegation zone, it's probably not a great surprise that it was only the third time he has tasted victory in the 2009/10 campaign -- a run which is a microcosm of the collective picture which led to the dismissal of Brendan Rodgers, who was ushered in as a summer replacement for Steve Coppell.
"The goal has been a long time coming," he said, in the aftermath of a famous win. "Hopefully it's a start of things to come."
Long desperately needs a kickstart in the right direction, for his place in the Irish international set-up became less certain as the World Cup campaign progressed. Giovanni Trapattoni has spoken positively of his talents at regular intervals but that has never translated into his team selections.
The 22-year-old has been ever-present in the Italian's squads, yet he didn't play a single minute of the World Cup qualifying campaign. His outings under the 70-year-old have been restricted to cameo roles in the friendlies with Serbia, Poland and Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Caleb Folan and Leon Best have emerged from out of the picture and were entrusted with the responsibility of figuring in the key games. Long couldn't even make the bench, cutting a familiar tracksuited figure wandering around before such games in the company of a third goalkeeper and the other unlucky outcasts.
Indeed, revellers in Limerick's Clarion Hotel were surprised to see the Reading star, in his Irish gear, checking in to book a room on the night of the friendly victory over South Africa in September. It's rare to see an Irish player going anywhere around such occasions without the presence of a minder, but Long had obviously been allowed to escape the periphery.
With Ireland making advances towards ex-Reading man Simon Cox, now banging in the goals for West Brom, then it's clear they are looking to supplement the forward department and with Andy Keogh engaged in the Premier League with Wolves -- up until a recent ankle problem -- then it's becoming a little bit crowded in that area behind the established front pair of Doyle and Robbie Keane.
Under Steve Staunton, Long progressed to be the next in line with two confident goals in the 4-0 win over Denmark in August 2007 highlighting his potential, a word that is often bandied about in relation to the former hurling star who came to the game late and possesses a raw talent that extends to most aspects of his life. "He'd be an X Factor winner if he wasn't a footballer," observed Stephen Hunt, in a reference to Long's instant progression from guitar beginner to accomplished musician.
Yet he has failed to hit the right notes on the pitch in the three-and-a-half years since Denmark with the early signs of trouble highlighted, ironically enough, by an incident at Anfield later that season where he threw his jersey at the bench after being withdrawn by Coppell -- angry that a rare start had come to nothing.
Such petulance was surprising because Long is generally regarded as one of the good guys, an affable character who is popular with his team-mates. Reading are aware of his talent and pay him handsomely for his services; he's believed to be earning in the region of €15,000-20,000 per week. They have shunned interest from other suitors, alerted by his persistent spells out of the team.
Stand-in boss Brian McDermott, formerly chief scout, is a fan and last summer he recommended that Long undergo special training to get in shape, organising one-on-one sessions with trainer Kevin Dobson.
"We do boxing work and exercises like that," said Long, at the time. "Different things to what we do at Reading. I enjoy the boxing pad training in particular because it improves coordination and core body strength and it requires a good deal of concentration."
However, the stint did not prompt an immediate upturn in his performances, with the natives at the Madejski unhappy with the quality of his displays in a season where few have avoided criticism.
The sentiment is borne from the belief that he is under-performing relative to his ability. His heroics at Anfield emphasised what a handful for defenders he can be when on song. From the minute he was introduced, Long was a bustling presence, eventually winning the penalty by reacting quicker than Yossi Benayoun to a loose ball in the box.
While his precise header in extra-time commanded the headlines, what was arguably more impressive was his work-rate during that half-hour and the cleverness to win a couple of free-kicks when the underdogs were under the cosh.
It's the kind of contribution that was the norm rather than the exception when he burst onto the scene in the promotion season of 2005/2006 -- just 12 months after leaving the Cork City reserves.
The aim now should be to progress to the level of regular headline grabber as opposed to sporadic forays to prominence.
His admirers have been waiting a long time for that leap and any disappointment at the delay should be tempered by the fact he is just a week short of his 23rd birthday. Unlike Benitez, he has time on his side.