Wednesday 26 July 2017

Striking the right chord

Guitar man Shane Long is no longer playing catch-up at the highest level, writes Stuart James

Part of the initiation ceremony for new signings at West Bromwich Albion involves singing in front of the rest of the team on the first away trip.

It happens at many other clubs and generally ends up being a humiliating experience for the player and a source of great amusement for everyone else. Yet there was none of the usual laughter when Shane Long sang My Girl at the team hotel before the Chelsea game in August. "How do I follow that?" was Ben Foster's response.

The Albion goalkeeper had the thankless task of trying to compete with a footballer whose musical talent prompted some of his former colleagues at Reading to wonder whether he could become a star on the X Factor as well as a top Premier League striker. Long, who is about as modest a person as one could wish to meet, blushes at the suggestion. "I think it's just because I play football," he says, "and because of that people think I wouldn't be able to sing or play the guitar, so when I do they're a bit more amazed."

It was certainly a welcome surprise for Brian McDermott, the Reading manager who was chief scout when Long arrived from Cork City in 2005 in a £92,000 deal -- the word bargain hardly does it justice -- that also brought Kevin Doyle to the club. McDermott, who provided Long with a roof over his head in the first two months, had no idea his lodger shared his passion for the guitar. "I picked it up and played it at a barbecue and I think he was a bit astonished," Long says.

His first audition at Reading soon followed. "It was Ronnie Grant, the kit man's 70th birthday, and we had a big surprise party for him after training one day," recalls Long, who was 18 at the time. "Brian brought in the guitar and told me I had to sing in front of everybody. This was about three months after I joined the club. I was still very new and I can remember the sweat was rolling off me. It was the most nervous I had ever been, everyone from the club was sat in the canteen.

"I sang No Woman, No Cry and all the boys stood up and rolled with it straight away. Soon everyone started to join in and that made it a lot easier. Looking back, it was an ice-breaker. It kind of got me into the squad a bit more. Although I was nervous and sweating, it was a way of introducing myself to all the players and I think that's why Brian made me do it."

Long's late father, Eamonn, had inspired him to take an interest in music from a young age. "My dad played the guitar a lot. He used to get me into singing in church and singing along with him in the car. He showed my brother how to play the guitar and that was then the next step for me. I picked it up when I was about 13, so I've played it for 11 years now. I try a bit of everything, David Gray, Paolo Nutini, anything with a guitar in it really."

Indeed Long's most prized possession has nothing to do with football but instead is a Yamaha guitar that belonged to his father. "I think it cost about £500 back in the day. I play it every now and again but it's just nice to have. It's older than me and any time I picture my dad I picture him playing that guitar."

It is impossible not to feel emotional when listening to Long talk about his father, who was only 47 when he had a fatal heart attack. "I was 16 at the time," Long says. "I was the youngest [of four] but I think I had to be a bit of a rock. My mum was obviously devastated and my sister was away, so it was us three boys who had to keep strong for her.

"I miss him, obviously. It would have been nice for him to be involved in it all and that's something you do miss. But I have good memories of him and they will live on for ever."

Long is a credit to his father and his mother, Anne, who moved with him to Cork and then England. He is a humble young man, well-mannered with old-fashioned values. He turned up to his first press conference at Reading wearing a suit and tie and there is a lovely story about how he and his mother would leave the key in the front door when they first rented a house together in England because that was what life was like in Gortnahoe, where Long grew up. "It took a while to get used to the fact that you couldn't do that over here and that you needed to set alarms," he says, smiling.

Being from Tipperary, Long excelled at hurling from a young age. It was not until he turned 12 that he joined a football team, following a chance conversation his father had in a pub.

He then came to the attention of Cork City. His promising hurling career -- he played for the Tipperary minors and appeared in two All-Ireland semi-finals at Croke Park -- was blossoming at the time and it got to the point where a huge decision had to be made.

"I just didn't want any regrets," Long says. "I always thought if football didn't work out, I could go back to hurling. But this was my chance to give football a shot."

Twelve months later, the gamble paid off. McDermott came to watch Doyle but a young substitute also caught his eye and Reading signed both players. It was a big move for Long in particular. He had made only a few appearances for Cork and his talent was raw, as one of the Reading players realised at his first training session. "I was with Jem Karacan and we had to do different drills where we had to keep the ball up in the air for a minute as a pair. He was okay but I was brutal," Long says, laughing. "Jem says now that he thought at the time: 'Who is this lad?'"

Long knew he was "playing catch-up" and for the first four seasons he had to be patient and was mainly used as a substitute. His fortunes changed when McDermott took over as manager in December 2009. Not for the first time Long and McDermott were singing from the same song sheet. McDermott turned Reading round and Long started to score prolifically, including 21 Championship goals last season.

Roy Hodgson liked what he saw in Long and the Albion manager convinced the club to pay £5.5m for him in August. The rewards were instant. Long scored against Manchester United on his debut and grabbed another at Chelsea the following weekend.

A further three goals have followed and he might have had more but for Alan Hutton's dreadful challenge in October that sidelined him for four weeks.

"I like to throw myself about and I expect the same," Long says. "But I did think he went in to hurt me in the tackle. I thought it was a red card but it's forgotten about now."

He is too busy thinking about an exciting future to worry about the past.

Albion go into today's home match against Everton in ninth place, after taking seven points from their past three matches, including a draw against Manchester City on St Stephen's Day, when they became the first team to stop Roberto Mancini's side from scoring in the league this season. "That was one of the hardest points I've earned in my life," Long says.

He has his eye on a top-10 finish, which would be the perfect way to go into the European Championships in the summer, where he will be packing more than just his boots. "It's a long way away and there is a lot of impressing to do to make sure I'm in that squad. But if I am part of it, I can't wait to be out there."

And what about the guitar? "It will be coming," says Long, smiling.

"After the games there will be a bit of a singsong. It's a kind of tradition."

West Brom v Everton,

Sky Sports 1, 12.30

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