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Thursday 29 September 2016

No longer a bit-part player in Irish drama

In-form Shane hails squad as 'strongest ever' ahead of Euros

Shane Long celebrates opening the scoring against. Photo: PA
Shane Long celebrates opening the scoring against. Photo: PA

After just short of a decade as a senior international footballer, life with the Republic of Ireland has often been unfulfilled for Shane Long.

But 2016 is shaping up to be the biggest summer of his career, a real living hope that the form which the 29-year-old has shown in the campaign just gone at club level can be carried onto the big stage with Ireland.

A poacher's goal in last week's 1-1 draw with Holland was a sign that Long can do the job which has fallen to Robbie Keane so many times over so many years, nicking a goal which had more importance than beauty.

It was also a sign of how confident Long is, the Tipperary man looking to a big summer in the Ireland shirt after a very big season in the red and white of Southampton.

"I was always confident in what I can do. I don't think I got as many chances over the years as I'd have liked, there were a lot good good strikers ahead of me and I had to just bide my time," Long told The Herald.

Difference

"I finally broke into the Southampton team, I played well. I think playing week in, week out, makes a big difference, rather than playing a bit-part all the time. I have enjoyed this season, I am feeling very confident, I always play to my strengths and hopefully that will be enough from now on."

Long is encouraged by the fact that he marked last week's game at home to Holland with a goal, and despite that cut on his knee which sparked concern over his fitness, he hopes to play against Belarus tomorrow, though boss Martin O'Neill is more likely to give game time to the strikers who didn't play against the Dutch, such as Daryl Murphy, Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane.

"I felt good towards the end of the season with Southampton, I was fit, we were playing well and I scored a few so I want to keep up that form into the Euros. We had two games to prepare, one is out of the way but I'd hope to get on the pitch against Belarus at some stage tomorrow and carry that confidence into the finals," he says.

While Long is assured of a place in the squad, others are not so sure. It's a card call for Martin O'Neill to trim down his squad to 23, Long claiming that competition for places has never been as intense.

That's high praise from a man who was handed his Ireland debut by Steve Staunton and went on to play, intermittently, under Giovanni Trapattoni and Martin O'Neill.

"I think this is the best squad we've had and the squad for Euro 2016 will be the hardest for the manager to pick, I think anyone who gets left out will feel hard done-by. I think that shows how well the lads have been playing, it's sad that someone has to miss out," he says.

"It's a nervous few days for everyone and it's good to have competition. We had 30-odd players over the week, more due in over weekend, it's not an easy job for the manager as he had 35 in the squad but only 23 can travel.

"There is a bit of awkwardness about it all but the lads who played on Friday did themselves no harm, and tomorrow is another opportunity for some more players to make a case."

Tomorrow's game against Belarus at Turner's Cross is a sort of homecoming for the forward, who had a spell there with Cork City before his 2005 move to England.

"I think I only played once at Turner's Cross for City's first team. I had a lot of U19 games there but, from memory, 15 minutes against Bray Wanderers one day was my only real run-out at the Cross. I think we were winning 1-0, I came off the bench and don't remember much more than that," he recalls.

"Cork City is where it all started for me, I have a lot of good memories of my time down there, that gave me my start in professional football.

"I know how serious they all take it down there from my own time there, it was a real eye-opener for me, coming from the level I had been at and then going to League of Ireland level, they looked after me. Cork City was a great club which has had to rebuild itself after some hard times but I'm looking forward to seeing some of the Cork crowd again."

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