herald

Saturday 22 September 2018

Long: 'Our confidence is back'

Striker believes squad revived after friendlies

Republic of Ireland striker Shane Long in action against Poland's Adam Marciniak. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland striker Shane Long in action against Poland's Adam Marciniak. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

ANYONE with a knowledge of the recent history of the Irish national team should know that getting carried away with ourselves ends up in disappointment.

Those brilliant friendly wins over Germany and Holland in the build-up to the 1994 World Cup counted for little once the real football started.

As for the proud unbeaten run that Ireland had under Giovanni Trapattoni took into Euro 2012.

So the recent record of three games unbeaten and three successive clean sheets, obtained under Noel King (against Kazakhstan) and Martin O'Neill (Latvia and Poland) should also be treated with a large dollop of caution and restraint.

At home to Latvia, Ireland faced a very poor side made up mainly of players from the Latvian league, while on Tuesday night in Poznan, two rather ordinary sides played out an ordinary, lifeless game on a terrible pitch.

The thrilling events in Tuesday's play-off matches – the French revival in Paris, Ronaldo's hat-trick against the Swedes, Croatia's defeat of a brave Iceland side – showed the other side of life in football, players like Ronaldo doing the business in matches that count.

Belief

But there is a belief within the Irish camp that the last fortnight under O'Neill has given cause for hope and optimism once again, morale restored after the earlier events of 2013 when Ireland lost three qualifying games in succession for the first time since the dark days of the early 1970s.

"I think the confidence is back in the side again. We are unbeaten in three games, we have three clean sheets in a row, I know we can't read too much into the friendly games, but there is a lot to take from the two games," Shane Long told the Herald, the West Brom man appearing in both games under O'Neill, as a goal-scoring sub against Latvia and then a starter in Poznan.

"But to me, what makes it even better is that we have done it with different teams, different players as the manager has changed it around a bit.

"Anyone who has come into the side has slotted in really well and didn't look out of place. I am sure that the manager is happy with how the team has done, but how players have done individually," added Long.

At a glance, it seems as if O'Neill has freshened up the squad by handing out a large batch of caps over a short space of time.

Stats

The stats don't really back that up, however. In the games against Latvia and Poland, the final matches of a busy 2013, O'Neill used 21 players, with Newcastle keeper Rob Elliot the only member of the travelling party who didn't get any game time.

In the first two games of the calendar year, against Poland (home) and Sweden (away), Giovanni Trapattoni used 19 players, so he was willing to hand out caps as well.

There are obvious changes, with previous outcasts like Stephen Ward and Anthony Stokes restored to the side, while players who did feature in those early matches this year under Trap, such as Simon Cox, Conor Sammon and Greg Cunningham, are far off the radar in terms of the international team right now and could face a battle to get back into the squad, never mind the team.

Of course, not a lot was learned in Poznan on Tuesday as a terrible pitch made it impossible to play the game the proper way.

"It was hard to play football on that pitch as the surface was so bad, it was very bobbly and Tuesday ended up being a pretty scrappy game. We had to work hard and dig in to try and see if a few chances would come our way," Long added.

"Chances were few and far between, so it wasn't much to sing about. Aiden McGeady sent a cross into me at the back post, but I just wasn't able to get to it, you need that slice of luck and that didn't come for us.

"It was still a decent performance, 0-0 away from home against a good Poland side."

Break

Of course, there is now a winter break, with no game due until Serbia visit Dublin in March.

"It's a pity that there is now a long break to the next international, March seems like a long way away," said Long.

"I suppose we have to all knuckle down with our clubs now and try to impress.

"The last 10-11 days has been all about us getting to meet the new manager and getting to know his ways, he will be going to a lot of games over the next four months and it's up to us as players to do well whenever Martin, or Roy, come to see us."

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