Sunday 17 December 2017

Long road to USA worth the sacrifice for patient Kevin

Barcelona manager Luis Enrique lifts the Copa Del Rey trophy after the team’s 3-1 victory over Alaves in his final game as manager. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
Barcelona manager Luis Enrique lifts the Copa Del Rey trophy after the team’s 3-1 victory over Alaves in his final game as manager. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Kevin Long is used to packing his bags for football reasons, but he will do so this morning with a spring in his step.

Ireland are bound for America ahead of Thursday night's friendly with Mexico, a game that is likely to give fringe members of the squad a chance to further their international career.

For Long, it's a new experience. At 26, this is the first time that the Burnley defender has spent time around a senior international squad.

In his family the international recognition has been restricted to his elder brother Daniel, who represented the amateur side under Gerry Smith when he played for Avondale.

"He's always held that against me," says the Corkman. "So if I get a cap for the proper team I think I can shove that on him."

That statement is delivered with a smile. His brother played up front and he fondly recalls teenage games trying to stop him. The call from Martin O'Neill meant a lot to the family, even if it came at a price.

Opportunity

Daniel is getting married this week, but duty calls and the opportunity to travel to America with Ireland was too good to turn down.

"I don't think he'll mind me missing it," says Long. "He was happy that I got called up for my country."

Experience has taught him that he has to seize opportunities when they come. He joined Burnley in the winter of 2009 when they were a top-flight club, yet he had to wait over seven years - where they lived something of a yo-yo existence - before getting a Premier League start earlier this month.

He did get a chance off the bench against Newcastle on New Year's Day 2015, yet that would end in heartbreak when he suffered a cruciate ligament injury. It was especially cruel because at that stage he had already served his time on the loan trail gaining experience.

Accrington, Rochdale, Portsmouth, Barnsley and MK Dons have been his stops on the road towards this point.

Recognition from club and country in a whirlwind spell brought about by injuries to Michael Keane and Ben Mee have made the hard work worth it.

"It has been a little bit of a shock," he says modestly.

"When I had my injury it was a bad piece of luck. I went on loan, I came back, I got my match fitness. I've been around the Burnley team for the last year and injury free. It's just that the lads ahead of me have been doing really well so I couldn't really complain.

"It can be frustrating, I'm not going to lie. Every footballer wants to play, but if you're not you have to keep ready physically and mentally in case the chance comes - and thankfully it did."

Long enjoyed last week's training camp in Fota Island and also managed to take in his old employer Cork City's league win over Shamrock Rovers on Friday night.

They're a different operation now to the club he left in 2009, which was effectively on its last legs and in need of a reboot, which followed after his departure.

Former City full-back Neal Horgan's brilliant 'Second City' book chronicles that fraught period, and details how the emergence of young Long brought a certain pressure. It became clear that selling the promising teenager might help to pay wages and other unpaid bills that were draining morale and forcing support staff to leave.

"I do remember that," laughs Long. "I think Stevie O'Donnell was screaming at me in the showers, saying would I ever leave. Listen, that was a strange situation. I'd grown up watching them as a kid so that was brilliant.

"I was a young lad coming through and loved playing for my local club, so everything that was kinda happening in or around the place was going over my head to be honest.

"Everything was happening so fast for me at the time and within a few months I was over in England.

"Obviously the senior players there had wives and kids and stuff so they would have taken more notice of it. I was just happy playing football."

He's a bit wiser to the ways of the world now. However, that simple joy of pulling on a shirt that means so much to him will drive his enthusiasm for this unexpected adventure in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, Eunan O'Kane and Shane Duffy will be part of the 19-man panel for the America trip even though they were involved in a three car accident en route from Derry to Dublin yesterday.

The pair were shaken but able to report at the base in Castleknock ahead of training in Abbotstown and the flight to the US today.

West Ham's Declan Rice dropped out after the Fota training camp, while Darren Randolph, James McClean and Long are the only squad members to have lined out in the top flight this season. The absence of a recognised left-back is one talking point. Wolves' Matt Doherty was cut from the final list.

Ireland Squad: C Doyle, D Randolph; C Christie, A Pearce, R Keogh, S Duffy, A Boyle, K Long, J Egan, E O'Kane, A Browne, D Horgan, C Hourihane, W Hoolahan, S Gleeson, C O'Dowda, J McClean, D McGoldrick, D Murphy

Irish Independent

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