Wednesday 28 September 2016

Southampton striker 'hitting peak form' at perfect time to lead the line for Ireland

Aidan Fitzmauirice

Published 04/06/2016 | 02:30

Playing 90 minutes week in, week out for Southampton has helped Shane
Long find an extra edge to his game this year. Photo credit David Maher/Sportsfile
Playing 90 minutes week in, week out for Southampton has helped Shane Long find an extra edge to his game this year. Photo credit David Maher/Sportsfile

Any striker in world football would be proud to boast on his CV of having scored international goals against Germany, England and Holland.

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Not many centre forwards would also claim that the skills which helped create those career-defining moments, like the winning goal in a European Championship qualifier against the reigning world champions, were honed with a hurl in one hand and an eye on a sliotar.

The sight of the Irish squad and backroom staff trying their hands at the small ball game in training this week would have confused any watching scouts from opposing nations at Euro 2016, with Shane Long making a claim that he, and not David Meyler, was the most adroit hurler in the squad.

But part of the game which Long has displayed in the Premier League in the season just gone, form which has seen him linked with (yet another) big money move, came from his hurling background.

"The gaffer here with Ireland made a big thing about my hold up play and that developed my game," says Long.

"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 [defenders], they will start to run in there before you, so you have to mix it up and change it up, and I tend to do that in matches, I have learned that over the last four or five years.

Happy

"I have really worked hard at it and it's beginning to come together for me now and I am happy with it," he says, taking it all back to the roots.

"When I went over to England first I think it was the natural ability that got me over there in the first place but then they started to coach me - not taking away from the coaches I had here at all, but the kids over there have 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.

"The hurling and the cut and thrust of it helped me as well but 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," he smiles.

"The hurling is a real contact sport and helps to build you up and I so like to put myself about when I play up front and let the defender know I'm there and they are in a game."

Long's international career has yielded more frustration than joy, as he was a bit-part player for long periods under three managers and his only taste of the action in Euro 2012 was as a late sub.

He had hard times at club level too, and recalls how his then boss at Reading, Brian McDermott, stood by him when he went through a barren spell.

"I think I scored one goal in 13 games and it was not really working for me," Long recalls.

"Then I ended up scoring 25 goals by the end of the season. It's just that confidence thing as a striker that you have day in, day out, week in, week out and everything just seems to happen.

"You are just flying, taking a touch without thinking about it. It does give you that confidence and I think that does help me."

He's bursting with confidence now, and if anything was learned from Tuesday's game against Belarus, it's the fact that Long must start against Sweden next week, the 29-year-old heading into Euro 2016 after the best season of his club career.

"I feel good and I think a lot of it is down to playing 90 minutes week in, week out at club level and the gaffer at Southampton (Ronald Koeman) 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.

"It all helps a striker and you go out on to the pitch with that added edge and I have felt good since December onwards and hopefully I can continue it in 10 days' time.

"I am 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," says Long, now on 63 caps.

"I 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."

So what can explain the form that led him to finish as his club's second-top scorer in the Premier League?

"I think awareness has a lot to do with it for me and I have worked on that side of it," Long reveals.

"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. 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 now."

The goal Long scored against Germany was a throw-back to the Charlton years: long punt up the field from the keeper and a poacher's finish, but Long believes that the mix of cultures in his club side, managed by a man who was a classy Dutch international in his day, carries on through the Irish squad.

Defence

"I think at Southampton we do like to pass it around, we're not a direct team. At the same time there is nothing wrong with that quick ball in behind the defence if it is on," says Long. "We're not afraid to play that ball and that does suit me. But we have got a lot of players who can pass the ball up the pitch and score the perfect goal as well.

"At club level we have got a nice mix. If you watch training (with Ireland) you could see that we have the players who can do the same thing," added Long, who still has his axed international team-mates in his thoughts.

"They all had a big part to play in getting us to the finals in France in the first place, and having to pick 23 to go out there was no easy task.

"They obviously want us to do well at the tournament and you never know - a few injuries might crop up - and one or two of them might be called back into the squad."

Irish Independent

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