Saturday 26 May 2018

The twinkle-toed Tipperary star with Europe at his feet

Shane Long, soccer international

Goal hero: Shane Long
Goal hero: Shane Long
John Meagher

John Meagher

Up to 100,000 Irish fans are tipped to descend on France this summer, buoyed by dreams of glory for the latest batch of Boys in Green. They - and those of us who will be glued to our screens back home - shouldn't forget the goalscorer who set us on the road to qualification. Shane Long bagged the only goal - a perfectly struck beauty - in the win over world champions Germany in Dublin and without it, it's likely that Northern Ireland would be the sole representative in Euro 2016 from this island.

Much has been said about the collective spirit of Martin O'Neill's squad and the absence of world-class players, but Long - who turns 29 on January 22 - is the one most likely to write his name in lights in Paris, Bordeaux and any other cities that the Irish juggernaut can reach. With Ireland's veteran striker Robbie Keane in the twilight of his career, there's been a real sense of late that his mantle has been passed to Jon Walters and Long.

Along with Seamus Coleman, Long is seen as one of the most naturally gifted Irish footballers of his generation, a striker with a dazzling array of skills and touches who is capable of turning a game on its head as his sweet, clinically executed strike that beat Germany's outstanding goalkeeper Manuel Neuer so palpably proved.

And yet, few players in the 24 squads this summer will have been such late converts to football. Born in Gortnahoe, Co Tipperary, young Shane's first love was hurling. His talent was such that he made the county minor team that played in two All-Ireland semi-finals in 2003 and 2004. He also played Gaelic football with his local club.

Had he persisted with hurling, there's a strong likelihood that he would have made the Tipperary senior squad that won an All-Ireland title in 2010. He was still playing hurling when his instinctive talent in football became obvious to those who saw him, and he soon found himself on the books of Cork City. Long only played for one season for the Turners Cross club - and appeared in just two matches - but his promise was such that he was snapped up by Reading, along with teammate Kevin Doyle.

Both players comfortably made the transition to English club football, although Long, the younger of the two, suffered bouts of homesickness. His mother Anne moved to Berkshire to help him settle and to keep the young star grounded. It's a relationship that has been pivotal for him, especially as his father, Eamonn, died shortly after he first moved across the Irish Sea. Long prospered at Reading, scoring three goals in 10 appearances in the club's Championship-winning season, and after establishing himself as a first-team regular, he had little difficulty adapting to the demands of the Premier League.

His CV includes stints at West Bromwich Albion and Hull City, before making a £12m move to Southampton. The south-coast club has seen a sharp improvement in its fortunes in the past few years, although Long has sometimes struggled to make the starting XI. But over Christmas be bagged two goals against Arsenal in a four-nil thrashing,

Since making his Republic of Ireland debut in February 2007 in a 2-1 away win over minnows San Marino, he has been a regular with the international side, even if many of those appearances has been as a second-half substitute. Long has now amassed 59 caps and has enjoyed a healthy strike rate of 14 goals, including the crucial equalising goal he scored at home to Poland in the Euro qualifier last March and, of course, that goal against Germany in October. He started neither game, but both strikes illustrate his value from the bench.

The next six months could be the most intriguing of his career to date. He is now arguably at his peak, age-wise, and will be hoping to either force his way into Ronald Koeman's starting XI at Southampton or secure a move to another progressive Premier League club in the January transfer window. Regular first-team football will certainly help his Irish cause.

Long has experience of playing in a major football tournament before. He made substitute appearances against Croatia and Italy in Euro 2012, but was powerless to stop Giovanni Trapattoni's side suffering humiliating defeats.

This Irish team will be hoping they don't concede as cheaply as they did four years ago, and if Long gets his chance and produces the goods, there's a real possibility that we will emerge from a group that comprises Belgium, Italy and Sweden.

Irrespective of how Ireland fares in France, Long has found himself immortalised in a football anthem that is likely to be on constant rotation in the run up to the championships. To the tune of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive', the chorus goes: "Grown men cried, they really cried/ Shane Long scored the goal/ And Darren Randolph did provide/ We gave all we had to give."

All together now...

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