Monday 26 September 2016

Understudy comes of age - Shane Long's moment has arrived

Published 30/03/2016 | 13:27

Sitting around watching football on TV and munching packets of chocolate Mintrels in a Reading apartment, it was easy to forget I was in the company of Ireland’s newest Premier League stars.

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This was the first week of April 2006 and Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt and Shane Long were living out a dream so many Irish kids cherish.

Increasingly, so many Irish youngsters fear the hope of making a step into the Premier League is out of reach, but the story of these three home grown stars should fuel belief for all.

My first meeting with the trio came a few months before they made it onto the Premier League stage, with the three Irish amigos who had taken Reading by storm with their goals, energy and desire looking forward to mixing it with Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Jose Mourinho’s first version of Chelsea.

Doyle, Hunt and Long were daring to believe that an international future lay in wait, with Doyle the first to make the step up to the senior Ireland team and his two Reading comrades not far behind him.

A decade on and all three should look back on their respective stories with great pride.

With more than 150 senior Ireland appearances between them in careers that have seen some much of their potential realised, this is a success story that confirms it is still possible for kids with talent and dedication to emerge from this country and make it big in English football.

Doyle and Hunt were living in an apartment block a few minutes away from Reading’s Madjeski Stadium back then, with Long’s mam on hand to cook the duo dinner when they were not hanging out in their favourite restaurant.

“Doyler and I have just bought a couple of apartments and we spend most of our nights together in Pizza Express or Italian restaurants,” Hunt told me at the time.

“We have the same meals every night and when we turn up at our favourite restaurant called Ask, they just look at us and say, oh they’re back again. Rumours will be flying about us two if we are not careful!”

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Doyle was reflecting on his rapid rise from Cork City to the senior Ireland national team, as he suggested his new found fame was taking some getting used to.

“It was a bit different for me when I went home this time,” he said. “People are beginning to recognise me now and a guy came up to me on the plane to say hello. That has never happened to me before, so it was a bit strange. Getting my first Ireland cap is what has done it. Playing for Reading would not be big news in Wexford.”

Long - previously a rising hurling star from Gortnahoe, Co. Tipperary - was just 19 at the time of this interview and when he arrived at Reading, he was very much seen as the tag on in the deal to sign Doyle.

Yet Long’s successes have now surpassed that of his more senior pals.

The scorer of one of the most iconic goals in Irish soccer history, the image of Long racing clear of the Germany defence and lashing home his famous winner in the Euro 2016 qualifier against the world champions last October will be etched into all our minds for years to come.

Long’s transfer fees over the course of his career have exceeded £20m and his status as an established Premier League star has been in place for many a long year.

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While Doyle and Hunt’s finest hours may be behind them, Shane’s brightest days should still lie ahead, with his role in Ireland’s Euro 2016 story this summer offering up a chance for the Southampton striker to become an enduring legend of Irish sport.

The internationals against Switzerland and Slovakia in recent days helped to banish the notion that Long’s best position in the Ireland set-up is that of an impact player from the bench.

It goes without saying Ireland Player of the Year Jon Walters needs to be accommodated in the Martin O'Neill's line-up that will take to the field for the opening Euro 2016 assignment against Sweden at Stade de France on June 13th, but this could be the defining moment for 29-year-old Long, the long time understudy to the stellar stars at club and international level.

Having waited a decade for Robbie Keane to relinquish his throne as Ireland’s lead marksman, Long looks ready to finally take centre stage as a star in his own right.

You can bet that his old pals from Reading are duly proud of his progress.

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