In the 71st minute of last Thursday’s Euro 2016 qualifier between Ireland and Germany at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, the home team’s substitute goalkeeper Darren Randolph launched a monstrous goal kick into the German half, with another substitute, Shane Long, latching onto the ball. The Southampton striker advanced on goal before finding himself with time to shoot from a scoreable position. He unleashed a perfectly-placed strike beyond Manuel Neuer and into the top corner of the net, in the process writing himself into Irish football folklore.
It wasn’t just any old goal from Long. It was a sumptuous finish which was enough to give Ireland, incredibly, their first competitive victory over a higher-ranked nation since they defeated Netherlands at the old Lansdowne Road in 2001. Once the euphoria among Ireland’s fanatical supporters had subsided, a familiar question was asked. Why is Long, a genuinely good goalscorer with a first-rate attitude, never a cast-iron certainty to start up front, for either country or club?
Since joining Southampton in August 2014, Long has only started 17 league games for the Saints, with the majority of his appearances coming as a substitute. His scoring record isn’t exceptional – he has 11 for the south coast club – and he faces stiff competition for a starting berth with Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane. However, there is a prevailing sense that if Long was given a sustained run of starts rather than being left to repeatedly try and make an impact off the bench, he could be one of the Premier League’s more prolific strikers. I have seen enough of Long to be convinced that, if he was consistently chosen to lead the line, he could have the same strike rate as somebody like Jamie Vardy or Charlie Austin, both of whom have been rightly hailed for the impact they have made on the Premier League since Long made the move from Hull to Southampton.
It is true that the Irishman hasn’t always fit the description of cold-blooded goal poacher. In one of his earlier games in an Ireland shirt, he was guilty of a shocking open goal miss in a crucial Euro 2008 qualifier in the Czech Republic, a game that finished 1-0 to the hosts. It could have shattered the then 20-year-old’s international career, but he showed his true colours by putting it behind him and becoming a regular in a green shirt since then. Ironically, Long was often in the shadow of compatriot Kevin Doyle, who at the time was also a club-mate at Reading, but while Doyle’s career for both club and country has stalled in recent years, Long has worked tirelessly to consistently be picked for international duty – or at least in international squads.
Since his Ireland debut during the ill-fated reign of Steve Staunton, neither Giovanni Trapattoni nor Martin O’Neill has shown enough faith in Long to make him a regular starter. This is despite the country failing to produce a genuine goal poacher in that time – Robbie Keane was long established and is now very much in the twilight of his career – but still the Southampton striker has never managed to convince either O’Neill or his club manager Ronald Koeman that he is main man material. Although the competition for striking berths at St Mary’s is fierce, and Koeman is unlikely to play three front men any time soon, it beggars belief that the likes of Daryl Murphy have just as much of a chance as Long of starting up top for Ireland. The Ipswich man has been prolific at club level but, with the greatest due respect, is exposed as a Championship player when it comes to international football.
A club of Southampton’s size seems ideal for the native of County Tipperary. He isn’t quite at a level where he would feature regularly for a Champions League-contending club, but nor should he have to settle for being a big fish in a small pond at a relegation-threatened side. Given other Premier League clubs’ glaring lack of goals, quite a few of them would dearly love to have Long in their squad. The burning question is how badly does Koeman want him? He clearly rates the Irishman, having signed him from Hull at the beginning of last season, but still has a preference for Pelle and Mane, while the return from long-term injury of Jay Rodriguez only adds to the competition.
If the Dutchman gives Long a prolonged chance, though, it could be a decision that ensures another hugely satisfying season at St Mary’s. Shane Long has been under-appreciated at both club and international level for long enough. He will be 29 in January. This is the peak time of his career. He deserves not to be left wondering what he could have been.
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