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Playing the Long game

FOR Brian McDermott, it was love at first sight. The moment he laid eyes on Shane Long, he knew he was the one.

That ability to see an end product in a young man’s potential, to roll the dice with the confidence your numbers will come up, is what separates good managers from bad. And while there is no doubt McDermott has the ability to identify raw talent for bargain prices – he got Long, Kevin Doyle, Dave Kitson, Steve Sidwell and Ian Harte to Reading for a combined spend of £300,000 – the undoubted point is that in the making of Long, the player, McDermott also contributed to the making of Long, the man.

He was 18 when McDermott first saw him warm up for a Cork City pre-season friendly: “No other player moved the way Shane did,” he said. No other player would move into McDermott’s Berkshire home. Yet Long did. “He washed the dishes, played tennis with the missus, cut the grass and became good pals with my children.” Five years later, when Long’s child was born, McDermott was asked to be Godfather.

And it is easy to understand how the pair became so close. On a personal level, they are similar characters – understated yet ambitious – but from a career perspective, if it wasn’t for McDermott, Shane Long would probably be playing hurling for Tipperary “or heading around Oz looking for work”.

So he owes a mentor a lot for believing in the lightly-regarded reserve striker who had scored only 20 goals in the first 126 games of his Reading career (83 of which were as a sub) before McDermott became manager, whereupon Long became a starter, and provided a return of 34 goals from 75 starts.

“All he needed was the chance,” says McDermott.

And suddenly, last summer, Everton, Newcastle, Liverpool and West Brom all wanted to give him a chance in the Premier League but it was Roy Hodgson who produced the best sales pitch, showing Long a DVD they had made of him over 25 games, telling him he was his number one choice in the transfer market.

“The fact it was Roy Hodgson, the man who had managed at World Cups, at Liverpool, at Inter Milan, who was coming to me, telling me I was going to start every week, telling me precisely how he would improve me as a player, well, that did it for me,” says Long.

And there has been distinct improvement.

“Shane has developed every aspect of his game since he has been here,” says Dean Kiely, the former Ireland goalkeeper and now West Brom assistant manager. “He’s on his way to being a big player at Premier League and international level.”

Yet on this sunny, spring day, the potential superstar looks and sounds like any other 25-year-old child of rural Ireland, his short brown hair flawlessly groomed, his soft accent unaffected by six years living in England.

He thinks of the summer ahead and speaks coolly about it being a business trip – when to so many fans, it is anything but. For them, it is about nationality, about escaping life’s reality, about investing their money and their faith in young men like Shane Long and hoping they will deliver on their promise.

“We are all going there with the aim of making our own memories, our own Ray Houghton moments. All we really want is to do ourselves proud,” says Long.

What the public wants is something more, though. For them, being at the show isn’t enough. They want a spectacle too – something that is unlikely to unfold under Giovanni Trapattoni, whose innate conservatism is both his strength and weakness.

“While we have good enough players to play a Spanish style – why fix it if it is not broken? We qualified playing the way we did, and we get results playing the way we do, so it’s only right to stick to that game plan and not complicate it too much,” says Long.

“Anyway, it’s not as if he doesn’t want us to play the ball on the ground. Sometimes he asks me to come short and link up as well as get in behind their defenders to open up space. His philosophy has worked for 30 years so it is fair to say he knows what he’s doing.”

These days, Long knows what he is doing in an around a penalty box too. Now 25, his maturation from an impact sub into a £6.5million Premier League striker has been the subject of wonder from those who had written him off earlier in his career.

What they didn’t know, though, was what we do – that he had arrived at Reading as an 18-year-old with just three hours of professional football behind him, when he was still coming to terms with the death of his father and the loss of his first sporting love, hurling.

In a parallel universe, we could be talking about Tipperary’s rather than Ireland’s summer today. But in life, every man has to determine his own destiny and when he was 18, Long made a decision which altered his.

That choice, to change addresses and sports, was seismic. Cork was the destination – but Poland and the European Championships was the dream. “It was a big deal at the time because hurling is massive in Tipp and was all I’d ever done,” he says. “But something told me to give soccer a go.”

All these years later, the decision has been vindicated.

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