Ireland’s attacking talisman reaps benefits of a Long education
Southampton striker believes he is reaching his full potential for club and country
Shane Long has thrived since winning a regular first-team place at Southampton. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
His managers sometimes seem a little eager to take a lot of the credit but Shane Long likes to think that the work he has put in himself on the training ground over the last couple of seasons has contributed to the tremendous form he has shown over the last six months or so.
A latecomer to professional football after a youth spent hurling, Long believes that raw talent and the ease with which he took to the physical side of soccer got him through the early years in England and that only now is he really achieving his full potential.
“You need to be versatile as a striker,” he says, “and if you keep running in behind them, they will start to run in there before you, so you have to mix it up and change it up and I tend to do that in matches. I have learned that over the last four or five years. I have really worked hard at it and it’s beginning to come together for me now and I am happy with it.
“I guess I probably am now hitting the peak of my career but I’d hope to have another four or five years at the top.”
On recent form, he looks more than capable of it and there have been suggestions of interest of other big clubs as well as reports of a contract extension offer intended to keep him at Southampton well beyond the two years he has left on his current deal.
If he plays in France as he has done over the latter part of the club season then he will become a good deal more marketable, although he seems entirely focused on the form itself. The 29-year-old is enjoying the fact that confidence in his ability, both his own and his managers’, has never been higher.
“I feel good and I think a lot of it is down to playing 90 minutes week in, week out. The gaffer at Southampton [Ronald Koeman] has given me a lot of confidence every day at training and on the Saturdays, when you know you are going to start.
“It all helps a striker and you go out on to the pitch with that added edge. I have felt good since December . . . hopefully I can continue it in 10 days’ time.
“When I got in ahead of [Graziano] Pellè [at Southampton], the team was struggling a bit and the gaffer wanted to change it up a bit. I had been training well since the Germany game so he stuck me in, he gave me a chance.
“I didn’t really click for one or two games but he stood by me and then the goals started to flow and I felt good.
“I kept kicking on. I think he liked the option of me on my own up front and it’s gone on from there. I took a lot of confidence from the goal against Germany and there was a lot of hype about it afterwards but that’s in the past now.
“I think the first time it happened was with Brian McDermott at Reading [where he made his debut in 2006 before gradually building his reputation over the five years that followed].
“I think I scored one goal in 13 games and it was not really working for me. Then I ended up scoring 25 goals by the end of the season.
“So it’s just that confidence thing as a striker. When you have that day in, day out, week in, week out, everything just seems to happen. You are just flying, taking a touch without thinking about it. It does give you that confidence and I think that does help me a lot.”
Long acknowledges that he has benefited from working with a steady succession of managers who have helped to bring him on, but he admits that Koeman and Martin O’Neill have had a particular impact.
“I think awareness has a lot to do with it for me and I have worked on that side of it,” he says of Koeman’s influence at club level. “I was always able to make those runs in behind and I had the pace but now I know where the defender is even before the ball comes to me and that’s a big help.
“Before, I was probably half looking to see where the defender was and, at the same time, trying to control the ball and it was breaking down a lot but that’s improved now.
“The gaffer here with Ireland made a big thing about my hold up play and that developed my game as well. As I said, every manager I have worked with has helped to develop my game in different areas and improved me as a footballer.”
The two teams’ styles are, he says, not so very far apart. “I think at Southampton we do like to pass it around, we’re not a direct team. But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with that quick ball in behind the defence if it is on.
“We’re not afraid to play that ball and that does suit me. But we have got a lot of players who can pass the ball up the pitch and score the perfect goal as well. At club level we have got a nice mix. If you watch training today, you could see that we have the players who can do the same thing.”