Shane Long - ‘For some of the lads, it’s probably the last throw of the dice’
SHANE LONG may retain a youthful complexion and a refreshingly cheerful demeanour, but the boy has grown into a man.
The next chapter of his life is under way, leaving behind the charming tale of the young hurling star in Tipperary who discovered a natural ability for football and packed his bags for England.
Now, he is a Premier League striker with a serious price tag on his shoulders, plying his trade for a club looking for a return on a substantial investment.
More than that, he is a father, a homeowner and an extremely important player for his country. The keyword is responsibility.
"It's different," he smiles. "And I didn't think about it at first. But I know that if things aren't going my way, then I could be a scapegoat for some people.
"But it's a good pressure. It's pushing me to make sure that I'm on top of my game and doing everything right off the pitch so I can deliver on the pitch. And live up to this stupid valuation on my head," he adds, with a grin.
A modesty remains, yet the reality is that others have to take this pacy and powerful front man seriously.
While an element of confusion remains about how much West Brom paid for his services in the summer, Roy Hodgson already considers it a bargain, and Long's evolution is such that he is very much out of the shadow of his ex-Cork and Reading team-mate, Kevin Doyle.
In an Irish context, he has grown from understudy to a viable rival for a starting place and a prime candidate to be at the forefront of the next generation.
Long turns 25 in January and is getting to the stage where he is entitled to be restless about the lack of major tournament experience. Keeping an eye on events in New Zealand heightens the desire. The real determination comes from those around him in the Irish dressing room, however.
Long was 18-months-old when Ireland made their sole appearance at a European Championships, and he can see the desperation of the senior pros who are keen to change that statistic. It's where a different kind of responsibility kicks in. As the time ticks down on their international careers, he is determined to make it happen for them as much as he is for himself.
"We want this a lot," he stressed. "For some of the lads, like Dunney (Richard Dunne), Duffer (Damien Duff) and Robbie (Keane) it's probably the last throw of the dice. They're going to give it their all, and we're in there behind them. We haven't been to a finals yet and want to be a part of one."
Long is not suggesting that the aforementioned trio are on the verge of quitting the international game, for there is a World Cup campaign over the horizon. "I think they'll play football forever," he quips.
In terms of reaching a European finals though, this is it. "Knowing Robbie and the lads, they haven't missed a game in a long time.
"I just don't think we'll get a better chance than we have now. I think the last time we got to the Euros was '88. We have threatened and now everyone wants to be involved."
When Long made his Irish debut, his country was involved in a fruitless attempt to make it to Euro '08. It was in San Marino in February 2007, with obvious parallels to this week's trip to Andorra.
Steve Staunton's team toiled to a last-minute victory and Long, who had been prolific in training, learned it was a different world against a team with 11-men behind the ball.
Under Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland have shown a more efficient approach to seeing off the underdogs. And Long is battle-hardened enough to cope with the test.
He faced a crossroads when the Italian regime rolled into town. At Reading, his form was poor, and the new Irish manager searched for alternatives. Caleb Folan and Leon Best were brought in, capped, and jumped up the queue. They were involved at the business end of the World Cup campaign. Long was an observer in a tracksuit, often missing out on the bench.
"It was frustrating seeing people come in ahead of me," he reflects. "But looking back, it was the right decision. I wasn't really playing at club level and the lads were doing well.
"But I knew the boss had faith in me. How? Marco (Tardelli) kept coming up to me and saying it, and I was still picked in every squad. I knew I had to improve on and off the pitch."
Reading boss Brian McDermott was central to the off-pitch improvement, encouraging an improvement in the raw talent's physical condition.
Last season prompted a remarkable turnaround and a bittersweet conclusion with a play-off final defeat meaning an inevitable parting of ways.
Long stills looks for Reading's result first and confesses to jumping around the house when 'Sky Sports News' reported an injury-time winner at Bristol City last week.
But for the sake of his career, it was time to move on. The guidance of Trapattoni was crucial and so, too, was the reputation of Roy Hodgson.
With club and country, Long knows there is a need to improve. He is speaking as an ambassador for the launch of EA Sports' computer game 'FIFA '12', a game where players are bluntly ranked according to their various attributes.
In real life, Long knows the area where improvement is necessary.
"What I've really concentrated on over the year is with my back to goal, and holding the ball up. Yes, I can use my pace to get in behind defenders, but when you're in front you sometimes need to hold it up when the defence is under pressure and bring the midfield into play," he said.
"It's very important in international football. You see the likes of John Carew doing it well. If our team is under pressure and the ball is kicked long, you have to make sure it sticks there. On Saturday, against Sunderland, I think I gave the ball away only once. It's a stat I always look out for."
Control in his personal life is important. He has just moved into a house in Sutton Coldfield with his girlfriend Kayleah and 18-month-old daughter Teigan. "There's still boxes everywhere," he sighs.
The Midlands area appealed, with so many Irish mates in the area. Now, he's just a two-minute walk away from his old Reading pal Stephen Hunt, and Doyle is only 20 minutes away. Andy Keogh and Stephen Ward are also in the area.
His mother Anne has relocated down the road. She moved to England with her teenage son when Reading swooped (his dad, Eamonn, passed away in 2003) and made sure to cook all his meals and run the household. Now, the son is under his own roof, but Anne is never too far away.
With a calf problem ruling him out of a trip to Moscow, they sat together in his living room and went through a rollercoaster of emotions as Ireland held on for a draw to keep their qualification hopes alive.
"Aw J***s, I was up and down," he reflects, "I don't know how the lads on the bench were coping. You had Dunney putting everything behind the ball, throwing in everything for the one cause."
Long's mother is sports mad, and calls around whenever a big match is on. She's a handy babysitting option as well, although Teigan's first words have been slow to offer her appreciation. "I think I'm her favourite," he laughs. "She has a few words and there's the odd mama and nana, but she loves saying dada."
Fitting when the father in question is the name on everybody's lips.
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