It has been a frustrating season for Shane Long. It is now four years since he announced his arrival in the first team with the leap of a salmon to head home the equalising goal at Derby on New Year’s Eve 2005. Having been signed six months previously with Kevin Doyle from Cork City, Long arrived very much as one for the future. His progression to the first team in such a short space of time was testament to his work ethic and potential but only served to heighten the expectations placed on his shoulders. With the Royals elevated to the Premier League at the end of Long’s debut season, there was little chance for the young Irishman to truly find his feet. When Steve Coppell opted to give the top flight a crack with virtually the same players that got promoted, Long remained one of just four strikers in the squad.
Being the least experienced and youngest of the quartet of forwards, Long found himself at the back of the queue for starting places, but still too important to be allowed out on loan to a team lower down the league ladder. Whilst playing against top class defenders intermittently will have benefitted him, the irregularity of his appearances meant he did not have the chance to firmly adjust to first team football. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing but it may well have been more useful for Long to have been loaned out to a League One side where he would have been a regular starter. At that level he would have found the net consistently and would have arrived back in Berkshire a better, more confident player. Instead, he remained at the Madejski and spent two Premier League seasons as a reserve in the shadow of Kevin Doyle who had taken to the top flight like a duck to water. He was often used as a late sub, a role that actually suited him but was not conducive to developing at the rate expected of him. With a relegation battle to fight in the 2007/08 season, it became even harder for Coppell to trust Long with the starts he required.
With Doyle and Leroy Lita retained for the push for promotion back to the Premier League, and with Noel Hunt making an instant impact following his move from Dundee United, Long again found himself making frustratingly little impact on the first team. Appearances were still restricted to regular outings from the bench, and his effectiveness in this role started to count against him. Long is a tremendous athlete, with pace, energy and an excellent spring. Coming on late in a game against a tiring defence, he can unsettle the opposition by closing down defenders and chasing lost causes. These qualities are not always effective over the marathon of a 90-minute game but in the sprint at the end, they can make the difference. Being seen as an impact sub might have carved out a role in the squad for Long, but it will no doubt have frustrated him to have made two thirds of his appearances from the bench in the Championship, having already played 50 games at a higher level.
Long was a late starter, having been a youth star at the Gaelic sport of hurling in his homeland. Long was not nurtured through an academy and did not have the coaching that his contemporaries had – it is still evident from his playing style that he has come to the game through an uncommon route. He is at his best when he has to be instinctive, with his finish against the Tykes on Saturday as a prime example. As Gylfi Sigurdsson cut the ball back to him, Long had little time to think and simply redirected the ball into the net from close range. It is when he finds himself with time on the ball and options to choose from that Long still seems out of his depth. When running in the channels, he still makes the wrong choice too often, taking on his man when a better pass is on, or passing too early when patience is required. Now that he is back on the goal trail following his Anfield winner and his goal against Barnsley, his confidence will be on the rise. If he can translate this into a run in the side, Long might finally fulfil his potential. After all, he is now older than Doyle was when he first hit the headlines.