Tuesday 16 January 2018

Long road to another level

West Brom's Irish strikers will have different doubts about their futures, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

When Shane Long signed for West Brom last week, Giovanni Trapattoni had the satisfaction of seeing a player whose development has meant so much to him return to the Premier League as a multi-million pound signing.

Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli have spotted potential in Long from the time they arrived and, in the last 18 months, the rest of English football has noticed.

Long's chance as the main striker in a Premier League team begins at the Hawthorns today against Manchester United. As it does, Trapattoni's most recent hunch is feeling less secure. Last week, Simon Cox talked animatedly about all the things Long will bring to the West Brom side. Long's game was based on pace and runs into the channels, he said.

This sounded okay. Cox's game is built on intelligence and touch so they could go together well. But Cox went on. He was asked if Long was too similar to Peter Odemwingie. No, he said. "Pete's more comfortable with the ball at his feet. Shane's big and powerful in the air, he's more of a target man than Pete is. They're both quick and strong so they'll both be a threat for any Premier League defence."

He had seen Long when both were at Reading. Long had pace, he always had pace, but there are some like Arsene Wenger who think that a player can only reach a certain level if he comes to football late. Long, who didn't start playing organised football until he was 13, has proved him wrong.

"He had raw pace," Cox said of the player he first glimpsed as a football neophyte at Reading, "and pace is a massive part of our football at the moment. It's something I believe in. If you've got a lot of pace, it scares a lot of people. If we've got both of them up front, he will be a very good addition to us, alongside Pete or whoever he plays alongside or with. He will be a great addition."

Cox then said he felt Long had been bought to play alongside Odemwingie. Somebody suggested it sounded as if he was talking himself out of the team. "I'm not, trust me I'm not. I hope I'm not."

Cox has taken a long time to get here. He is in the West Brom squad for today's game but there was a time last year when he expected to be on the road again.

He tells a story about his first time in the Irish squad which reveals much about his peripatetic life. As part of his initiation in the squad, Cox was expected to sing. For several reasons, this didn't faze him. "I think I could win X-Factor," he says but there was another reason. He has been on loan a few times and everywhere he's gone he's had to sing a song. Before Roy Hodgson arrived, Cox felt he would be travelling once more.

Instead, Hodgson gave him a chance. West Brom had made a decent start in the Premier League under Roberto Di Matteo but a run of 13 defeats in 18 matches ensured that their good start was forgotten.

Cox benefited from Hodgson's clear instructions. There was nothing particularly magnetic about his personality, Cox says, but they all knew what to do.

Did Hodgson have a certain air, a charisma, Cox is asked? "No," he replies. "Obviously everyone had seen what happened at Liverpool but on the flip-side everyone had seen what had happened at Fulham. We obviously expected a little bit of a backlash with him personally, maybe out to prove something to Liverpool about it. But there was none of that and he came and said these are the players I've been given, I'm going to work with this lot."

He changed things and made them play in the familiar Hodgson style. "He just made us a little bit more organised. He came in and said 'Look, you're a Premier League team for a reason. You're good players, that's why you're in the Premier League'. He came and stopped people wandering about the pitch and said 'Look, this is your position. You stay in the lines of your positions and start playing with your heads and not running around like headless chickens'. So we've gone out there and been a bit more organised."

West Brom will be organised today. Long may be asked to work on his own up front, chasing the ball into the channels.

"Now Shane is fantastic," Trapattoni says. "He plays like his quality allows him to. 'I'm fast, I go' -- but there are other moments where, like Robbie, he must drop in, then go . . . you can learn this as you play."

He believes Long has the ability and the willingness to learn. Trapattoni recalls his own days at Stuttgart and the daily sessions he spent with Mario Gomez, working on the forward's game.

Hodgson is a methodical manager too and while he generally works with drilling his team into his ideal shape, he will hope to develop Long as well.

"I haven't trained with him yet," Long said after the Ireland game on Wednesday, "but I've talked to him a lot. For a man who's done so much in the game, he's so genuine and honest, and down to earth. Just listening to him talk, you can hear the knowledge.

"I will learn a lot from him, so I'm excited to start training with him on Friday and improving as a player."

Long made only 16 starts for Reading over their two seasons in the Premier League, but he scored at Anfield in the FA Cup and his progress since he last played at the top level has been extraordinary.

"There's definitely a bit of improvement in me," Long says. "I came to the game late. And I have only played in the starting line-up for about one and a half seasons. Every game I learn something new and coming in under Trapattoni and now Roy Hodgson I'm picking up little bits off every manager. Hopefully I can develop quickly this season, I know it's not going to be easy."

Hodgson has already seen something he liked in Cox but whether it keeps him in the team remains to be seen. On Friday, West Brom turned down a bid for Odemwingie from Wigan but Cox has also been told he is part of Hodgson's plans.

"He obviously sees something in me that he likes," Cox says, "otherwise he would have told me I was surplus to requirements in the summer. Towards the end of last year, he came up to me, 'You're going to be an integral part of my plans for this year'. So I'm quite happy with that."

His season turned with Hodgson's arrival but not immediately. He didn't play a minute of his first five matches and then an injury let him in for Liverpool. He scored his first Premier League goal against Tottenham and spent the summer thinking about another year at the top, not which song he would sing at another club.

Now he must wonder where he will play. Hodgson likes to play two strikers but maybe not today or for the game at Chelsea next weekend.

Trapattoni isn't so sure Cox will lose out. "Why would they not play together? It depends. Cox plays many games right or left, maybe he can play striker. It depends on the system at the club."

For Long, there are different doubts. He arrived at Reading as a novice with only a few years' experience of football. He goes to West Brom as their record signing. Those who question the fee don't know where Shane Long is going and they might not even know where he has been.

West Brom v Manchester United,

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