Sunday 22 April 2018

Ireland can rely on long for Georgia

Bench life at St Mary's should give striker reason to shine for O'Neill's team

Shane Long is pictured in Ireland training ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi
Shane Long is pictured in Ireland training ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup qualifier against Georgia in Tbilisi

After I watched Shane Long light up Lansdowne Road in a friendly international against Uruguay back in 2011, I had every reason to think that this was a player who could make it to the very top of his trade.

But as we look forward to Ireland's next two games on the road to Russia against Georgia in Tbilisi and then Serbia on Tuesday, there is doubt in the air.

Very limited action at Southampton means that he comes to these games without match sharpness.

This is part of a pattern throughout Long's career but funnily enough, I feel that his relative inactivity at club level is good news for Ireland.

What I saw against Uruguay was enormous potential. Long was young, strong, fast and if he had consistent finishing in his locker, I was convinced he could be a very big player and not just for Ireland. I thought he had enough for big clubs to take a look.

Fast forward to the Aviva Stadium two years ago and Long on the rampage against Germany. He scored a huge goal for Ireland and was clearly enjoying life under Ronald Koeman.

But shortly after that and a run of starts for Koeman, he dropped back to the bench and didn't make any headlines until a few months later when he was unplayable against Manchester United and scored twice in a 4-0 win.

After that, Long went on a great run and admitted that Koeman had sparked something in him. He had a great four months to the end of the season and in the run-up to the Euro 2016 finals, he was Ireland's form player.

Leaving for France, he knew Koeman was off to Everton and we know that other players like Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick stole the show while Long faded into the background.

This has been the theme; brief high points followed by troughs and right now, he's in a downturn. Why this happens, I don't know but I think Long's late arrival into professional football may be relevant.

From what I've read about him, Long's first love was probably hurling and he didn't play as much soccer as a boy as the average Irish player who makes a career in England.

I'm not sure he is as driven as other lads who live and breathe the game and are visualising life as a top player in the Premier League as soon they can kick a ball. I think he is very content with the life he has been given and grateful for it.

Koeman got into Long's head and helped him find form which was in him all along but last season under Claude Puel, he scored two Premier League goals.

Martin O'Neill, of course, knows all of this but he must be pragmatic and with Jon Walters, Long still represents Ireland's best option up front even if he seems low on confidence and is definitely short of match fitness.

I would play Walters and Long as a pair and put four across the middle. I'd have Wes Hoolahan on the right but with a free role, Harry Arter and Robbie Brady in the centre and James McClean on the left.

At the back, it's a straight choice with Stephen Ward and Cyrus Christie in the full-back slots and Shane Duffy and Ciarán Clark holding the centre. Darron Randolph completes the list.

To be honest, I don't expect to see that team run out against Georgia. O'Neill doesn't trust Hoolahan and it would be a surprise if he starts. I have to admit to being concerned by Georgia who gave Ireland a right go at the Aviva and a few days later brought Wales back down to earth with a 1-1 draw which could so easily have been a shock win.

But Ireland don't lose very often on the road these days and this group of players has shown great heart to dig out results in difficult positions already in this group

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