Friday 24 November 2017

Four years of regret has Long primed for action

Republic of Ireland's Shane Long Picture: PA
Republic of Ireland's Shane Long Picture: PA
Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

He was merely on the fringe in 2012, by his own admission, but Shane Long plans to be front and centre and capable of making a big impact at Euro 2016.

A frustrated figure who had just two short substitute appearances to show for his efforts in Poland, Long is much happier this time around. Likely to start against Sweden on Monday, the Tipperary man is caught in that middle ground of trying to learn the lessons from 2012 while not getting dragged down by bad memories.

"We've been here once before and we didn't really perform the way we should have, or the way we can, and we've been regretting it for four years. So hopefully we can put that right this time," says Long.

"I was a bit of a fringe player four years ago. I think I got about 10 or 15 minutes on the pitch in total. But it was still an amazing experience and I have learned from it.

"I know straight after the second game (against Spain), with the disappointed heads in the dressing room, we knew that that was more or less it - after the two years' hard work, to just let it fall like that.

"So I take experience from it. I know it can be all over so quickly, so I want to make sure, especially in the Sweden game, that first game, that we start off on the right foot."

That's clearly something Ireland did not do on the playing fields of Poland in 2012. The game was up an hour into the opening game against Croatia, when the classy Balkan side - who must be considered as dark horses for Euro 2016 - scored their third goal against a helpless Shay Given. A lot has changed in the intervening years: Given's no longer first-choice keeper, men like Simon Cox, Paul Green and Sean St Ledger (who all managed to get gametime at Euro 2012) have fallen far off the radar.

The Southampton striker is no longer the man lacking the trust of the national team boss but is one of the few players in green Ireland's Group E rivals will be aware of - be certain his club team-mate Graziano Pellé has told Italy coach Antonio Conte about the man from Gortnahoe.

He's on form, has confidence coursing though those veins of his and, buoyed by his winning goal against Germany last year, Long could be a key player for Ireland this summer.

But it wasn't always thus, as international football has often treated Long with a squinted eye of distrust.

Past history has not treated Long well in terms of international football, but this is a chance for a fresh page, a new chapter.

"It's obviously a massive tournament, the Euros. It's a big thing, especially for a country like Ireland, to qualify," says Long (pictured).

"There are a few historic moments over the years of Ireland in big competitions and it hasn't really happened over the last ten or 14 years. We have got our chance now to rewrite history and to make our own moments. I'm looking forward to being a part of that."

One man not looking forward to Euro 2016 is Scotland coach Gordon Strachan. Given the preening and sneering from the Scots during the qualifiers, and especially in the aftermath of their win over Ireland in Glasgow and then their draw in Dublin, it's hard to look at the Scots through green-tinted lenses and feel sympathy.

Strachan this week said he can "hardly stomach" the thoughts of being in France as a TV analyst, not as one of the managers, leaving that Flower of Scotland song now sounding rather tuneless.

"People wrote us off. I think after we drew to Scotland, everyone was saying it was a three-horse race and Ireland were out of it," Long recalls.

"It really spurred us to go on. Of course we relied on a few other results to go our way but we still had to capitalise on our games."

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