Trap's Long ball game
Doyle injury blow could open the door for Reading man to finally prove worth
THE Long man for the long ball? Perhaps, perhaps.
While the shock loss of Kevin Doyle for tomorrow night's pivotal Euro 2012 qualifier with Slovakia is a serious blow for Giovanni Trapattoni, it presents an opportunity for the Wolves man's replacement to really make a name for himself.
The Ireland manager will confirm the identity of the replacement this evening and the odds strongly favour Shane Long, a young man who knows all about the pressures that come with standing in for Doyle. In truth, he is only now coming to terms with that task at Reading.
In theory, Trapattoni could go with one up front and deploy Aiden McGeady as a floating presence. But Marco Tardelli pretty much dismissed that scenario out of hand yesterday, suggesting that Long or Andy Keogh would benefit from the knee injury which resulted in Doyle packing his bags for a trip to the UK yesterday rather than boarding the flight to Zilina this morning.
Long's impressive cameo on Friday, which included his first competitive goal for his country, has placed the Tipperary man in pole position to capitalise.
"Hopefully I get the nod," said the 23-year-old, who acknowledged that he has endured some frustration over the past couple of years, waiting to build on the early promise of his international and club career.
The frustration was born from his own inability to make a strong case for inclusion. Trapattoni has never left Long out of a squad, but the player has found himself sitting in a tracksuit in the stand more often than making a contribution on the pitch.
"I've not been doing enough at club level to put the pressure on the lads up front," he concedes. "Sometimes you just fall out of favour or you're not playing as good as you can. You can't put your finger on it, you're doing the same things but it's just not happening on the pitch. I've pulled myself back together since January really."
The credit for that goes to Reading manager Brian McDermott, an important influence on Long, who has boosted the player's confidence and rewarded hard work with a sustained run in the team. It's potentially very important news for Ireland.
Looking down the line beyond this campaign, the dearth of striking options is a real worry, a fact evidenced by the panic that an injury to either Doyle or Keane causes. Caleb Folan and Leon Best staked a claim but lost form before disappearing through injury.
Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy fail to tick Trapattoni's boxes, and Jonathan Walters will be given his chance to audition next month.
There is an opportunity there for someone to really step up and make an impression -- particularly with the succession stakes in mind as Keane approaches the end of his career, although you suspect the Spurs man will retain his commitment to the green jersey for some time yet.
Long is an obvious candidate to progress. When he scored twice against Denmark in a friendly back in August 2007, fresh from an encouraging start to life at Reading, a glittering future was predicted. Indeed, he was such a rough diamond -- having come to the game late after lighting up the Tipp hurling scene in his teens -- that it wasn't unreasonable to suggest that, with natural development, he could provide serious competition for the chosen front pair.
Alas, he suffered in Reading's malaise, burdened by the responsibility of taking the No 9 jersey when Wolves paid €6.5m for Doyle last summer. As he floundered in the early part of last season, his critics in Berkshire wondered why a promising talent had stagnated. Now, they are beginning to appreciate the development of a player who has grown physically stronger.
If selected tomorrow, it would be his second competitive start for Ireland, more than three and a half years after his first. That came well ahead of schedule on that infamous night in San Marino when the local part-timers were seconds away from holding Steve Staunton's disorganised troops to an embarrassing draw. The occasion passed him by.
"I was a bit raw then," he reflects. "I didn't know as much about the game as I do now. I was gutted that I didn't make the impact I wanted to make."
The following September, when Ireland were in Slovakia, the FAI were unaware of two things. Firstly, that Stephen Ireland was representing his country for the last time. Secondly, that Long was sitting on the bench in Bratislava for a European Championship qualifier, unaware that he was suspended for an indiscretion arising from an underage international. Luckily, he wasn't introduced.
A month later, the FAI put out a story that Long was injured for another qualifier while he secretly served his ban. Clearly, they were confident that the player's situation would escape scrutiny.
Long slipped further into the background, watching with awe as his good friend Doyle grew in stature.
It will be fascinating to see how Ireland cope without the 27-year-old in Zilina. In Bulgaria last June, Trapattoni faced a similar dilemma and pitched in Caleb Folan, who proved effective as a strong-running target man.
Yet Doyle's responsibility has arguably grown since then, and he was the focal point of everything Ireland did in Yerevan last month. Trapattoni instructs his players to find the blondy-haired front man whenever possible, capitalising on his ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the game.
It is a bruising role and almost an impossible act to follow. "You have to do a lot for the team," admits Long. "That shows with Kevin. He's going to be a big loss and if I do have to fill his boots, then there's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done."
If things are going badly, the option is there for the manager to rotate without using the bench. Long could move wide, allowing McGeady to drop in behind Keane in a floating role.
Russia's midfield dominance on Friday has caused the dressing room to debate the merits of the 4-4-2. "It has stood Ireland in good stead for a long time now," observes Long. "But if we have to adapt to a different formation, we're more than capable."
Either way, he's just happy to be part of the debate. Anything is better than the anonymity of the periphery.