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Paul Hyland: Long thriving at the top but van Persie shows how it's done


Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (L) is challenged by Southampton's Shane Long

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (L) is challenged by Southampton's Shane Long

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (L) is challenged by Southampton's Shane Long

NOBODY would have given you decent odds at the start of the current Premier League season that Shane Long would the only Irishman intimately in the battle for top four status.

Last night he was a bright spark among a group of Southampton players who continue to defy the status quo at the top of the table and stick their collective nose in business which normally doesn't concern them.

But he could only watch and admire while Robin van Persie plundered three points with two razor-sharp thrusts after doing not much else of any consequence for the whole game.

Long is part of a dynamic team which is threatening to redraw the geography of the Premier League and he is obviously thriving on the experience. Van Persie could teach him plenty about finishing but not about commitment.

With his team-mates, Long outplayed Louis van Gaal's hodge-podge of academy defenders and marquee names and Southampton have no reason to feel out of place dining at this table.

They lost the game but they were better than Manchester United in almost every area and, most important of all, they work efficiently and with great commitment to Ronald Koeman's plan.

Even Long. It has been a source of great disappointment that up to now, he hasn't delivered on the promise which made good judges of football drool when he first emerged.

At international and club level, he has never done enough to displace Robbie Keane as Ireland's top striker, a difficult job sure but one he seemed equipped to do.

Koeman uses him has a pacey battering ram, forcing gaps in defences for Graziano Pelle to work in and he played him wide on the right last night.

Long supplied the cross which eventually produced the opportunity for Pelle to end a mini-scoring drought and equalise Robin van Persie's lead goal but even though he missed a couple of decent chances, it was his complete focus and application which impressed more than anything else.

There are times for Ireland when Long looks as if he would rather be anywhere else than wearing a green shirt but he has clearly found a manager and a club he can be comfortable with.

Right now, he is blazing a trail at the top and looks more comfortable in his boots than he has done since his swashbuckling days at Reading.

The hope is that this new-found stability will pay off for Martin O'Neill over the long haul.