Irishman opens up about dealing with criticism and chasing milestones.
Amidst all the glitz and glamour of life in the Premier League, Shane Long prefers to keep a low profile.
Perhaps it can be traced back to his roots in the Irish village of Gortnahoe. Long says he lived two hours from the nearest football team, so his exposure to this strange other world would come much later than most, and he still prefers a close-knit circle of friends and family.
“I’ve never got carried away with being a footballer,” he explains. “It’s always been a brilliant job to have and something I really enjoy doing, but I just don’t take any notice of all the limelight that footballers get. I like my own life away from it.
“I come from an Irish family, so they never let you get ahead of yourself and they’ll bring you back down to earth with a bang. The kids keep you entertained and you soon forget about work.”
Long likes to keep a safe distance between “work” and play. At 32 years of age, data proves he’s quicker than he was in his mid-20s, so there’s no doubting his professionalism and application to the job.
But you sense he prefers not to take football home with him and enjoys escaping from the bubble – including this very interview.
“I just don’t like the limelight,” he reiterates. “I don’t like doing interviews and I don’t like speaking to the papers or on TV.
“I just don’t like that side of football. I know it’s part and parcel – I’m not complaining about it – but when I retire I think that’s going to be the nicest thing for me; just disappearing into the background, watching games and taking yourself out of it.”
So it is with polite reluctance that Long sits down to tell his story. When he does, he speaks openly and honestly, but would rather discuss music, family or Irish culture than himself. He doesn’t like the limelight, remember.
It’s an outlook reflected in his football. Long may be a striker, but he lacks the ego that tends to come with the job.
Whilst many of his contemporaries carry a photographic memory of their goals and statistics, this centre-forward is not obsessed by numbers.
When asked how many Premier League goals he has scored in his career, Long looks blankly. “I haven’t a clue,” he admits.
The answer, 49, comes as a pleasant surprise.
“I can’t imagine there are many Irish players who have scored 50 goals, so that’s one to aim for,” he grins, sitting a little more upright in his seat.
He’s right. Only three – Robbie Keane (126), Niall Quinn (59) and Damien Duff (54) – have reached the half-century.
“It would be a nice thing to have at the end of my career,” he adds. “But I don’t want to score ten goals and get relegated. The main thing is to focus on the team.”
It’s typical of Long. Playing in the position that attracts the most glory, he works harder than almost every other player on the pitch – even if it means sacrificing his own desire to score, which still burns as it would for any other front man.
Saints’ number seven is the first to admit he needs more goals, even if he hasn’t been counting over the years.
Speaking after the win at Leicester in January in which he opened the scoring to end a nine-month drought, Long admitted the wait had not been easy.
“I’m quite good with my mind. I don’t let things get to me – I don’t read articles, I don’t listen to things that are hammering me,” he revealed.
“I think the lads in the dressing room appreciate what I do for the team and I’m confident in my ability, but it’s hard not to let it get to you personally when you’re not scoring.”
shane longi think the lads in the dressing room appreciate what i do for the team and i'm confident in my ability, but it's hard not to let it get to you personally when you're not scoring.
Long has proven he can do it. In his most prolific season at Reading, in the Championship, he scored 25 goals, while the 2015/16 campaign at Saints yielded 17 goals spread across the Premier League, Europa League, Carabao Cup and Irish internationals.
He puts his more recent troubles down to a combination of factors: intermittent game time, changes of manager, new strikers coming into the club and the team winning less matches.
“There are lots of different reasons that come into it, but ultimately there’s only one person who can change it, and that’s me,” he acknowledged.
“I’m trying to train hard and improve things that aren’t going right, but I think a lot of it is down to confidence. I’ve got to believe in myself first of all, and then others will believe in me.”
The earlier reference to blocking out negativity leads the conversation on to social media, with Long revealing he has not logged on for six weeks.
It draws comparisons to Nathan Redmond, who declared no good could come from online trolls.
“I think you put unnecessary pressure on yourself,” Long said. “I don’t take any notice when I’m doing well and people are praising me, so why should I pay attention to all the negative things being said about me?
“I didn’t talk to Redders about it, but he’s obviously had a good season and you can see he’s more confident in himself and playing well, so there could be a lot to be said about that.
“The younger age grow up with social media, so hopefully it doesn’t pollute their minds as they get older.
“I think the older players can laugh it off, but it’s never nice to read, even if you don’t really take any notice. Why put yourself in that position?
“I know the fans of Southampton like the way I work for the team, but there’s always that argument ‘he doesn’t score enough goals’. You’ve got to accept that as well.
“Coming off Twitter has been good for me – I don’t read any negative stuff. I’m my own worst and best critic – I know what I’ve done well and what I need to improve on.
“Those people writing on Twitter can’t change it. It’s only me who can change it.”
shane longthe younger age group grow up with social media, so hopefully it doesn't pollute their minds as they get older.
Like a lot of senior players, Long wonders where the time has gone and now finds himself the oldest member of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s increasingly youthful squad.
“There are players who were born in the year 2000, making you think ‘oh god, I’m pushing on now!’” he laughs.
“I’m trying to use it to my advantage and use my experience to help the younger players and be a good influence in the dressing room. The longer you go, the more you think about how long is left.”
For a player who may not track his numbers at club level, Long is fiercely patriotic and driven by the prospect of leaving a legacy on the international scene, and has no desire to stop playing for his country anytime soon.
“I love putting on the Ireland jersey, representing my country and all the highs and lows it brings," he says.
“It’s ups and downs, but it’s just an incredible honour. I’ll forever be proud of any chance I get to wear the jersey.”
With 82 caps to his name, Long is targeting 100 before he’s ready to pack it all in, while his 17 goals leave him only four behind Quinn, who sits second on the all-time list behind runaway leader Keane (68).
“Especially where I’m from back in Ireland, there haven’t been many international players, so to get 100 caps would be amazing for me personally, and for my family,” he adds, still keen to share his achievements.
“It’s going to be hard to do, but it is very possible over the next two or three years to get those 18 caps.
“There’s a target for goals there as well. There’s an opportunity to go into second – I don’t think I’m going to get another 50 to catch up with Robbie! He’s unbelievable, but that second spot is there for the taking.
“If I get a hat-trick in the next game, I’ll be searching for 25! I’ll keep trying to push myself. I don’t think I’ll ever be finished wanting more until it’s finished.”
Long hopes to reach the milestone still playing for Southampton in the Premier League, but wherever life takes him, he’ll be quite happy leaving the attention to others – on and off the pitch.