Long way to go
FOR over two years, Giovanni Trapattoni has been searching for a striking alternative to Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle. Now it appears as though the answer was sitting there the whole time.
By now, Shane Long would be qualified enough to publish a Christmas stocking filler describing the view from the substitutes' benches in a variety of different grounds around Europe.
When available, the Reading striker is an ever-present in the Italian's squad selections. He was an extra in the World Cup qualifying campaign, a figure in a tracksuit who watched as individuals like Caleb Folan and Leon Best were promoted into big games, while he jostled for a place in the dugout.
All of a sudden, Long is looking like a different player for Ireland this autumn. His impressive substitute appearance against Russia last month was followed by a starring role in the draw with Slovakia in Zilina and another promising outing in the otherwise disappointing defeat to Norway on Wednesday night.
The plaudits have rained in from every direction, and there's a movement forming which argues that, if Keane remains in the background at Spurs, then perhaps it is time for Long to be promoted to the starting XI.
It's hard to imagine Trapattoni contemplating that, but there's one question that remains outstanding. On this evidence, why is Long still playing in the Championship? And why is there no speculation linking him with a move to the top flight?
It might come as a surprise to those who have been wowed by the 23-year-old's recent outings for his country that, at Reading, the fans are still unsure about the merits of the ex-Cork City striker.
On one of the most popular fan forums, an irate poster started a thread named, 'Long -- Time To Go' in frustration after the 1-0 defeat to Bristol City last month. As of yesterday, there was over 1,500 messages in response and no clear consensus.
Clearly, it's a divisive argument.
The thrust of the criticism is that while he may be a hard worker, his strike rate is below par. In short, he needs too many chances to score, and is not the man to lead the Royals back to the top division.
Long has started 16 games for Brian McDermott's side this year and scored four goals. But three of those came from the penalty spot; his calm spot-kick conversion for Ireland the other night demonstrated his comfort in that department. The return from open play is seized upon by his detractors.
In truth, the last couple of years have been slightly unusual for Long. After developing an effective super-sub reputation when Steve Coppell brought Reading to the Premier League, a change of personnel thrust responsibility upon his shoulders. When Kevin Doyle set sail for Wolves, Long started the 2009/10 campaign as favourite to be the Championship's top scorer with a new boss in Brendan Rodgers.
Through a combination of injury and loss of form, he didn't score a goal until January, with Rodgers already having got the bullet. Long used to lodge with the new manager McDermott -- who had championed his recruitment in the first place -- and got off the mark with a strike that helped knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup.
It was a mixed bag for the rest of the campaign, with a brace against Aston Villa proving again that he can trouble elite defenders. But the flip side was a moderate total in the league -- hence the scepticism from the Madejski Stadium patrons carrying over into this campaign.
Earlier this month -- just a few weeks after brilliantly deputising for Doyle in Zilina -- he was booed by a section of Reading fans when he was replaced during a Championship meeting with Doncaster.
"Shane is still learning," said McDermott, in his defence. "But over the years, fans do sometimes give players a tough time. Shane had a difficult period with injuries but I know once he gets a few more goals, the fans will be on his side. The fact is we need fans to help him rather than go the other way. Confidence is a major factor in football, and every player is affected by it."
In the days after the Doncaster heckles, the club announced that Long had signed a new contract until 2012. He enjoys a good standard of living in Berkshire, and is believed to earn in the region of £15,000 a week, a hangover from the Premier League stint. Having become a father in the past year, his situation has changed off the pitch. Now, Irish fans are starting to see a growing maturity when he crosses the white line.
As it happens, there were parallels between his Irish outing during week and his previous club appearance for Reading in Saturday's 3-3 draw with Norwich. He was a bustling presence in that game and was on the mark with a penalty before missing a gilt-edged chance to claim three points.
Long was superb against Norway, yet his composure in front of goal let him down with Ireland on top in the second half. Considering he made the chances through his own endeavour, the profligacy was forgiven.
The ideal scenario is that the morale boost from his Irish displays propels the ex-Tipperary minor hurler to the next level. Certainly, there's no doubting his ability to make it there, but it won't happen until he finds the consistency to match the potential.