Sunday 18 February 2018

Long shot is no longer a gamble

Two goals against Aston Villa
Two goals against Aston Villa

Eamonn Sweeney

It's time for Ireland to put our trust in Shane Long. His two terrific goals for West Brom against Aston Villa on Monday night and the news that several top Premier League clubs want to prise him away from the Baggies confirm that the Tipperary striker is in his prime right now. Yet he continues to be a bit-part player on the international stage.

Giovanni Trapattoni's limited use of Long was one of the most irritating features of his time as Irish manager. Restricted to just two brief appearances in the European Championships, Long must have wondered what he'd done to fall behind Simon Cox in the queue.

Trap gave Long a chance in the World Cup qualifiers but the striker then suffered the humiliation of being dropped for the final two games. Noel King's decision to opt for that lumbering scourge of weak Scottish clubs, Anthony Stokes, showed just how much damage he'd have done if left in the position for much longer, and how unfit for the job he was in the first place.

Long is on the verge of finally establishing himself as a quality Premier League striker and chances are he'll be our key front man in the qualifying race for the 2016 European Championships. Because, while Robbie Keane has completed the journey from footballer to national treasure having been officially anointed last week by The Blessed Niall Quinn, the fact is that our record goalscorer will be 35 when the Euros come round and 37 by the time of the next World Cup finals.

But Long isn't just the wise choice for the future, he's also our number one striker these days because it's undeniable that, amid much terrifying talk of Keane wanting to continue for several more years, he's a diminished threat these days.

His admirers may point out that Keane scored six goals in the qualifying campaign but break those goals down and you see a hat-trick against the Faroe Islands, two penalties against Kazakhstan and a goal against Sweden which was his sole contribution against meaningful opposition. Long might not have Keane's international strike rate but this is to a large extent because he's been forced to fill in on the wing and hasn't had an extended run in the main striking role. He deserves to become the focal point of the team. Keane, who's struggled when playing up front on his own, can still make a very important contribution off the bench.

The temptation for Martin O'Neill, who favours a lone striker, is to play safe and stick with Keane. It should be avoided. Shane Long's hour has come.

Roy isn't the Keane Martin O'Neill needs to get tough with.

Sunday Independent

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