Sunday 18 August 2019

John Aldridge: Why Shane Long has to start for Ireland against Denmark

Shane Long lies on the Lansdowne Road pitch after a missed chance
Shane Long lies on the Lansdowne Road pitch after a missed chance

John Aldridge

I DON'T want to imagine how Shane Long must be feeling as his goalless run was extended to 28 matches on Saturday, but I still think he should start for Ireland against Denmark in Copenhagen on Saturday.

The longest I went without a goal in my career was around four matches and I used to lie awake at night worrying what I was doing wrong when I went more than two matches without hitting the back of the net.

Any striker that has a passion for scoring and a desperation to have the rush of adrenaline you get from scoring cannot begin to comprehend the agony Long must be feeling right now.

I appreciate that Premier League players are earning big money these days and the statistics are a little misleading as he is not playing 90 minutes too often these days, but the idea that Ireland's leading striker has not scored a goal for club or country since February 11th must be hard for him to comprehend.

I've always liked Long and the job he has been asked to do in the Ireland team more often that not over the last decade has some similarities to the task I was handed in Jack Charlton's Ireland team in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The truth was, Jack just didn't play a style of football that suited my game and it meant I was asked to chase down channels that took me away from goal and chances were few and far between.

When opportunities did come my way in front of goal, I tended to snatch at them more for Ireland than I did for my club side as there was always a chance another one would come along in the great Liverpool team I was a part of or with Real Sociedad and Tranmere.

I took an age to get my first Ireland goal and it did play on my mind in a big way, even though I appreciated this was not a team giving me the service I needed.

Don't get me wrong, we had some great players in those Ireland sides, but I was a striker who thrived on quality balls into the box from top class wingers like John Barnes and we didn't have that kind of set-up with Ireland.

That meant I had to accept a different role at international level and I was happy to do that as I would have run through a brick wall for my country and fulfilled any task Jack asked of me.

Long's position is a little different to mine as while I was scoring dozens of goals in between the international get-togethers to ensure my confidence remained high, Ireland's main man now is on a goal drought that continues when he goes back to his club.

You could see in the Moldova game at the Aviva Stadium last month that Shane was panicking when the ball came his way and you also see strikers who don't want to put themselves in a goal scoring position in case a chance comes their way and they miss it.

I'm not sure Shane has got to that point yet as he always looks like a lad who gives his all to the cause and despite what must be a slump in confidence, Ireland manager Martin O'Neill should be bold and name him in his team on Saturday evening.

We probably need an away goal in Denmark to maximize our chances of getting through to the World Cup finals and while Daryl Murphy is a decent option, Long has to start as he has a history of coming up with the goods when Ireland need him most.

The concern when Ireland play with Long as the lead striker is that he can get isolated up front if we get pinned back by opponents who generally have more of the ball than we do.

Long needs support and whether that means starting Murphy alongside him or making sure James McClean gets forward when we get a chance to break, O'Neill and his coaching staff cannot allow Shane to be chasing lost causes on his own all night.

From personal experience, I appreciate how disheartening that can be and if I had any advice to Long ahead of the game in Copenhagen this weekend, it would go something like this...

If a chance comes your way, don't try and be clever or cheeky with a finish, just get your head down and smash the ball as hard as you can.

Who knows, one goal for Shane Long in Denmark could lead to another in the return leg at the Aviva Stadium a few days later and if that dream scenario comes to pass, Ireland might well be making plans to visit Russia for the World Cup finals next summer.

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