Saturday 20 January 2018

It may be a long night in zilina!

A FLICK OF the wrist shows that his thoughts have not strayed too far from home despite his new-found status as a key man for his country.

As Shane Long sits down for a conversation after yesterday's squad training session in Malahide in a poky kitchen at the squad's training base, there's a revealing aside to his character and background.

The session is the last chance to get some air into the lungs before this morning's flight to Slovakia for a game which will have a big say in whether Ireland make it to the neighbouring countries of Poland and Ukraine in 2012.

On his left arm is not one of those gaudy diamond-encrusted watches worth more than the average industrial wage so favoured by Premier League footballers, but instead one of those plastic wrist bands popular with kids, with the blue and gold colours and the words Tiobraid Arainn.

If life had taken a different turn, Long would spend this week touring the schools of his native Tipperary as part of the victorious All-Ireland winning side, as he played up to minor level with many of the current Tipp heroes. Yet instead, Long is likely to occupy the nation's focus tomorrow night if, as expected, he's selected to play alongside Robbie Keane up front for Ireland.

Long pushed himself to the fore of manager Trapattoni's thoughts with an impressive substitute display against Russia on Friday night, scoring Ireland's second goal at Lansdowne Road, yet he's anything but an overnight success, as Long first scored for Ireland more than three years ago.

But he knows that a starting role against the Slovaks would be another chapter in an amazing story for the sports people of his home county.

"It was a great year for Tipp all round, with the seniors and the U21s. The atmosphere down in Tipp now is pretty good, and I suppose me scoring the other night didn't do any harm," Long told the Evening Herald.

"That Tipp win last month meant so much to me as I know a lot of the lads there. I played with Paddy Stapleton, Joseph Locke -- who was injured -- and a lot of the minors like Darragh Egan, Dave Young, and it's great to see them do well.

"It was an unbelievable feeling to score on Friday night. My first competitive game under Trapattoni, my first Ireland goal under him. I had a lot of family there to see the goal so that was nice, just a pity we didn't get the result we needed.

"My phone just went mental with all the texts and calls, I just had to leave it aside because I couldn't answer everyone, but it was a special night for me and it was nice to get such a response.

"In a way it's easy, coming on at 3-0 down when you're chasing the game, everyone pushing forward and not worrying as much about defending. But I was delighted to get the goal and hopefully I can push on from there with Ireland now tomorrow night," added Long.

The Reading man has been given a chance to play against the Slovaks as his former Reading team-mate and close friend Kevin Doyle was ruled out through injury yesterday.

"Kevin was gutted. I spoke to him when he was going home on Sunday morning. He was slightly relieved in that the injury was not a serious one, it looks like he'll only be out for two weeks. He's devastated not to be involved for tomorrow but glad that the injury isn't worse," Long revealed.

"It's a great chance for me now, the team hasn't been picked yet but hopefully I can get a run at some stage. Kevin is a big loss for us. He's one of the top strikers in the Premier League so it's going to be hard for us, he has big boots to fill, but we have to manage. And if I get the shout I am ready to take it.


"I feel like I have been playing well for my club recently. I hoped that would be enough coming into the game and thankfully I played a part.

"There is a bit of competition for that striking position, and you need that in the squad to push yourself so I have to use that competition to work harder in training and show the manager that I can play."

For a while there, Long and those close to him were wondering if Trapattoni knew that the Reading player was actually there at all. He's made almost every single Ireland squad during Trapattoni's reign but Friday was Long's first time to play in a competitive game under the Italian. Having played four times in the doomed Euro 2008 campaign under Staunton, Long was left to stew under Trapattoni, failing to even make the bench or the match-day squad in any of the games on the road to South Africa.

"It was frustrating, I have to admit, but I had to get on with it," he says. "It comes down to your club form. Towards the end of last season and at the start of this season I was starting almost every game. I was involved in the squad every time so I can't complain too much," added Long.

The Reading man is one of the survivors from Ireland's last visit to Slovakia, in 2007, and he hopes for better fortunes this week.

"I was there the last time we were in Slovakia, I was on the bench but didn't get on. We played well in that game, Doyler scored a cracking goal but we were robbed at the end when Slovakia got an equaliser. Hopefully it won't be a repeat of that and we might have to go for it out there. There's no point in playing for a 1-0 because you can get caught, as happened to us in Bratislava. We have good players in the team and in the squad so we have to go out and prove that," Long says.

"I think we need to go there and win. Three points from the Slovakia game would be massive for us. After losing on Friday we need to pick up as many points as we can and three points has to be the target as I can't see Russia throwing away too many points after this.

"It will be tough as Slovakia will be a tough place to go, and they've shown they are good away from home as well with that win in Moscow, so we won't get anything easy out there and if we can get something it will be a big step towards qualification."

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