It’s 6.15am when Shane Long is awoken on Christmas morning by three excitable children, who have all been counting down the days to this moment.
After a frantic morning of present opening, the striker heads to Staplewood at 3pm. Training on Christmas Day is the norm, and 2020 proves no exception.
Twenty-four hours later, having stayed in London with the team overnight, Long is thrust into Ralph Hasenhüttl’s starting line-up for the first time this season.
He even completes 90 minutes and scores a goal, though it’s rightly ruled offside, and Saints leave Fulham with a point and a clean sheet – their sixth shutout of the season.
Like so many others, Long admits his festive plans were compromised by COVID-19; a family visit from Ireland will have to wait another year.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, but hopefully by next Christmas it will have all settled down,” he says.
“My youngest is four now so all three kids knew what was going down – it was probably the first year all three of them have been really excited about it, so it was fun.
“With the pandemic and everything that’s been going on, it was nice to see some excited faces around the place, so I enjoyed it.”
Festivities aside, Long has mixed feelings on the season so far – the 16th of his professional career.
Upon signing a two-year contract extension in the summer, aged 33, the Irishman was realistic when asked how much he expected to play.
“I want to start every week and play every game, but I realise the club want younger players to come through and do well, and I’m going to be supporting them all the way,” he said at the time.
“If I can help them blossom in their careers as well, that’s another role I’m going to have to take, but at the moment I’m fighting for that starting eleven.”
Whilst philosophical about his chances, he admits he did not foresee waiting as long as Boxing Day for that elusive first start.
The first national lockdown came at a bad time for Long. He’d scored three goals in eight games before the season shutdown, starting all of those, and established a fruitful partnership alongside Danny Ings, who seemed to be benefiting from Long’s selfless running and ability to occupy multiple defenders at once.
Ings aside, it was Ché Adams who was the quickest striker to hit form after the restart, and Long found himself back on the bench – a pattern that has continued into 2020/21.
“It’s not gone as I would’ve planned it,” he opens up. “I wanted a lot more game time, because I felt like I did well last season when I came in, but then the lockdown happened, Ché came in and he’s been firing on all cylinders.
“Him and Danny have got a good partnership up front and I’m coming to the end of my career now, so I know I’m going to have to sit on the bench and make an impact when I can, but I would’ve liked a bit more game time out on the pitch.
“It has been frustrating, but at the same time it’s been brilliant being part of a team that’s doing so well in the league, pushing towards the top of the table and expecting big things from ourselves.
“The self-belief is back in the squad again that we had under the Koeman era. It’s very much a case of being capable of producing an amazing season, and the lads are very confident of doing that.
“I want to be as much a part of that as I can – selfishly I want more game time, but if it’s minutes off the bench every now and then and us finishing high up the table, I’d take that as well.”
Long has always been a team-comes-first kind of guy – often at the expense of personal plaudits and sometimes goals; it’s no coincidence that those around him tend to thrive when he plays.
The week that Saints pulled off their most eye-catching result of the season so far to upset Liverpool, in so doing taking their tally of clean sheets to eight – the joint-highest in the league – conjures memories of one night at Anfield when Long was definitely the headline-maker.
It’s nearly four years to the day since he slammed the ball past Loris Karius after a surging run into opposition territory from young whippersnapper Josh Sims, fresh from the bench, in front of a frenzied following of Saints fans in stoppage time of the EFL Cup semi-final second leg.
Long’s response, when reminded of his role as the chief protagonist in one of Saints’ most iconic moments, is typical of the man.
“Everyone forgets that Redders scored a goal down here at St Mary’s that was really important as well,” he says, pointing out Nathan Redmond’s first-leg winner that gave Claude Puel’s team a lead to protect when they headed north.
“That night was just incredible – even the build-up before the game, with all the Liverpool fans and flares going off, that really got us into the atmosphere. To come out of there and get to Wembley was amazing.”
Long’s history against the Reds extends beyond his 2017 masterpiece. Ten years ago, he left it even later at Anfield, heading a dramatic extra-time winner for Reading in an FA Cup third-round replay.
Two of his favourite ever goals, he declares, even if his decisive strike against Germany to help his country qualify for Euro 2016 will take some beating.
“I don’t want to start looking back now because there’s still a few days in front of me hopefully, but there’s a few moments that would stand out,” he adds, typically understated.
For now, the focus is on adding to his scrapbook, not flicking through old memories, although ending his five-month wait for a recall with the winning goal at Craven Cottage would have been a worthy addition.
“I surprised myself – I’m not exactly getting any younger, but it I was glad to be out on the pitch,” he says.
“It wasn’t a very pretty game. It was a small, horrible pitch, Fulham are fighting for their lives and it ended up being a bit of a battle, but I felt like I coped really well and I was delighted to get 90 minutes in the end – my first 90 minutes in a long time, but I felt good out there.”
Long’s goal that wasn’t was actually one of two Saints “scored” in the closing stages, but the implementation of VAR scrutinises every offside with forensic detail, making life increasingly difficult for strikers such as Saints’ No. 7, who has made a living out of playing on the shoulder of the last defender.
“Being quick, you’ve just got to time it a little bit better and give yourself that extra yard of space, knowing that I’ll be able to beat the defender because of my pace,” says Long, who maintains an unbiased stance on what has become a major talking point in modern football.
“It’s just that little bit of timing that you need to work on and obviously being my first start, maybe that’s the reason I went a little bit early.
“There are some I’ve looked at and I still don’t think they’re offside! We’ve asked for that in the game – we’ve asked for the officials to have a bit of help, so we can’t whinge about the decisions when they don’t go our way.
“It is frustrating in games when you think you’ve scored and you find out two minutes later it’s not a goal, but it’s a fair outcome at the end of the day, which is all you can ask for.”
Recent history suggests the turn of the year tends to be timely for Long, whose first goal of the season has come after Christmas in each of the last four campaigns.
Now in his seventh season with the club, he has never failed to score in the month of January in each of the previous six. Watch this space...
“I want to impose my story into the season, selfishly, but I feel like I’ve got a lot to give as well,” he explains.
“I’m going to be fully supportive of Danny and Ché because they’ve been brilliant this season and deservedly playing week in week out, but I’m ready when called upon to come in and do a job for the team.
“I feel like I still have a lot to give, so hopefully there’s a lot more game time between now and the end of the season.
“I know there’s a lot of games squeezed in between now and then, so I’ll be ready and raring to go when called upon.”