It's a Long way from Tipperary
SHANE LONG reflects on his unexpected life as a Premiership goalscorer and says "there are more good days than bad". The truth is more remarkable - there are more extraordinary days than ordinary ones. Last Tuesday was no exception.
In the afternoon, Long was named in Steve Staunton's squad for this week's game in San Marino. Later that evening he started for Reading in the Premiership and scored his third goal in as many home games. Long is half-way through his second season in English football; he only took the game up seriously seven years ago - "I would have played in the basketball court at school before that," he says - and he is now part of Reading's odyssey, less than three years since he began a scholarship with Cork City. There are many more good days than bad.
But Long's good fortune grew from personal tragedy. In 2003, his father Eamonn died suddenly. He had been his son's mentor as a sportsman. Long grew up in Gortnahoe, Co Tipperary playing all sports under the enthusiastic eye of his father. But this early grief, as it so often does, hardened Long for the struggles ahead. He may feel that the experience of playing in front of 70,000 at Croke Park as a 16-year-old prepared him for life in the Premiership, but responding as he has done to the loss of his father undoubtedly brought some inner strength.
Long had represented Ireland at under-age level in athletics, played badminton - a great love of his father's - but excelled at hurling. Last year Babs Keating described Long as "the one that got away", a comment that brought an easy smile to Long's face as he sat in the Madejski Hotel in Reading last Thursday, telling his remarkable story.
When the offer came to leave Tipperary and join Cork City in the summer of 2004, Long was compelled by the memory of his father as much as the desire to have no regrets to try something new.
"When I was younger he used to come to all the games and it was a bit of a shock when he passed away. It took me a while to get over it and stuff. That's why I went to Cork, I just had to kinda get away and give it a shot. He's been a big influence; I'd love if he was still here."
When he moved to Cork, his mother Ann went with him. With another son studying in the city, the Longs found it easy to set up home. Within a year, they would make an even more surprising move when mother and youngest son would pack up and head for Reading. Now Ann Long is the matriarch for the country boys at Reading. She cooked Christmas dinner for Long, Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle before they travelled to Stamford Bridge for the game against Chelsea on St Stephen's Day.
"My uncle rang up and asked her if she ever thought she'd be cooking Christmas dinner for three Irish internationals which made her think - the lads went off to Chelsea full anyway."
Doyle, Long and Hunt may represent the infiltration of football beyond its normal strongholds in Ireland and Long's story is the most astonishing. The parish of Gortnahoe & Glengoole is said - by Stephen Hunt most loudly according to Long - to be the model for D'Unbelievables' fictional Glengooley. When Long returned home there last summer, he was treated no differently than when he left, even if there were a few more people wearing Reading shirts.
He would have been a star of the Tipperary hurling side, but he is now the most famous name in the county, a footballing novice with a sporting pedigree.
Long began playing football when he was 13 with St Kevin's in Two Mile-Borris before moving to St Michael's in Tipperary town. He was playing hurling at the same time, starring in consecutive Munster finals where he scored 2-1 in both finals, but he was never going to turn down the football opportunity when Pat Dolan offered to take him to Cork.
"It was a big decision really because where I'm from it's all hurling, it's all you play, but I just thought about it a lot and I thought I don't want any regrets, I don't want to be thinking what could have been."
The hurling, he decided, was something he could return to while football offered one chance only. He took it and when, after only a year at Cork and the departure of Dolan, Reading offered him a move as part of the deal which took Doyle to the club, he was even more determined there would be no regrets.
Long, Doyle and Hunt arrived in the same summer and brought a different element to a typically cosmopolitan dressing room.
"I remember when we signed, we brought a few hurleys and sliotars into the training ground and the lads couldn't believe it was actually a game. They thought the keeper was all padded up like an ice hockey goalkeeper and all that sort of crack. It's strange for them not to know what it is when it's so natural to us. It's good to have a few Irish lads around so you can go for a puck around."
Hunt's reputation as a nifty corner-forward remains just that as he has yet to be seen in the occasional casual and non-contact games on the GAA pitch which Long's Reading flat overlooks - "I've never seen any hurling matches played there but when friends come over, we go out and have a puck around."
The intensity of hurling has prepared Long for Europe's fastest league, he says, but when you suggest a football injury must be preferable to one picked up in hurling, he disagrees.
"To be honest now, it's the other way round. Whatever happens insoccer, it's always muscle injuries and you can't do anything about it. In hurling it's just a bang, you grit you teeth and get on with it. In football, the muscle injuries are more annoying in a way."
There is a difference in ferocity though.
"I'd much rather come against Rio Ferdinand than O'Sullivan, the Cork full-back."
A thigh injury kept him out of last week's cup game and he needed a fitness test again before yesterday's game against Manchester City.
He doesn't want to stay out of this Reading side. Last summer, he returned to England and found out that Steve Coppell would not be signing another striker. His ambition then was to do enough so Coppell wouldn't want to sign a striker in January. Even after Doyle's injury last month, Coppell kept buying defenders. Long took his chance and appears relaxed in every game he plays. Why wouldn't I be, he asks?
"There's no pressure on me, the gaffer just said to me go out and do what you do. Even if I play badly or I play good he's the same manager to me. It's good to have that behind me. I know he's got faith in me be-cause he didn't buy anyone in. How could you not perform in a Premiership game? It's a dream come true, I'm up for every game. I really want to get out there and I'm enjoying it."
His trust in Coppell is clear. "He really loves the game and he knows so much about it. He tells you things, not obvious things but things that you wouldn't think of that make such a difference. I didn't grow up playing football, I don't have the background that some of the lads have and he just points out some things that make a difference to my game and it's good to have that knowledge around."
He will hope to travel to Rimini tomorrow and play some part against San Marino. He was sent off in an underage game last summer after his Turkish opponent claimed Long spat at him. Long was shocked when the linesman believed his opponent and the referee then sent him off. A five-game ban followed, but it has been served and it has been the only delay in his shooting-star career.
Last week, he was not even thinking about this Wednesday's game having been schooled by Coppell to look no further than the next match.
But a return to Croke Park where he was twice a beaten semi-finalist with Tipperary minors beckons in March. "It would be brilliant to get back there again," he says, and it would not be an improbable twist in the life story of Shane Long.
There have been moments when he's questioned his ability, he says, but the bad times don't last long.
"There are times when you have a bad game or when everything goes wrong when you think, 'Am I good enough at all?' The good days definitely outnumber the bad days though. I've been lucky the first season we won the championship, the second we're doing brilliantly in the Premiership. I haven't had a bad season yet so hopefully it continues."
His mother had planned to go home after his first season in the Premiership, but she likes it now and might stick around. "I'd recommend it to anyone," he says with a laugh. "She's the person on my shoulder, telling me all the right things to do."
He believes that his father is present too. "Before every game I say a prayer he used to say to me when I was a kid and it just gives me that boost and I know he's up there."
The Long family is enjoying life in Reading while the youngest son thrives in the Premiership. His mother, he jokes, is kept on her toes with all the visitors, but one day there will be a return to Gortnahoe.
The land is rented out, he says, but the home will always be there. "We'll end up there but we've time yet."
You know that Shane Long will make the most of that time.