After an explosive end to 2018/19, the summer break came at the wrong time for Shane Long. But the Irishman has fought his way back – as he always does – to establish himself as a key man once more...
Shane Long has been one of the unsung heroes of Southampton’s recent revival – just the way he likes it.
The media attention, public spotlight and constant exposure to praise and criticism is not his cup of tea, but that’s not to say he craves success any less than his peers.
He recently made a landmark 200th appearance for Saints, and is one of only 14 active players in the top flight with at least 300 Premier League games to their name (310).
Long works hard at his craft. He’s just turned 33, but seems as sharp and springy as ever – the intensity with which he plays on a matchday is mirrored day to day at Staplewood.
Sometimes that effort goes unrewarded, either by fans who expect more goals or managers who pick someone else, but the Irishman does not change. He knows his chance will come.
It’s often in difficult times that Saints turn to Long, and invariably he helps turn things around.
He remembers a period in 2015/16, his second season at St Mary’s, when Graziano Pellè was sidelined by injury and he filled the void by going on a scoring run himself.
Last year, with Saints nervously peering over their shoulders, he was promoted to the starting line-up in April and netted four times in five games – important goals that helped retain the club’s Premier League status.
Long admits he never wanted 2018/19 to end. Three months after it did, when Saints kicked off the current campaign, he was not even on the bench for the season opener at Burnley.
“I felt in a good place going into pre-season,” he reflects. “Obviously Ché (Adams) came in and Michael (Obafemi) is stepping up again, so there’s always going to be competition for places.
“I was frustrated not to always be in the starting eleven, never mind the travelling squad at times.
“It was a tough time for me. I pride myself on training as hard as I can every day and it’s hard to keep your head on when you’re not involved in the team.”
As usual, Long did keep his head on. He carried on working, never letting his standards slip, never throwing up a fuss.
“I’ve been in the game a long time,” he reasons. “I tried to keep professional. If nothing else, it pushed the other three strikers to keep fighting for their places.”
By December, he had only two starts to his name – one in the league, one in the Carabao Cup.
He finally got another opportunity against Norwich shortly before Christmas. Saints won 2-1. Team and player have not looked back since.
“I was knocking on the door for a long time,” he says. “The manager told me my chance would come if I keep doing what I’m doing, and it won’t go unnoticed what I do on the training pitch.
“There were a few tough games that we needed results from and they decided to throw me in to be a bit of a target man up front. It worked.
“He’s giving me every confidence that he instils his trust in me – that’s refreshing for a striker to have.”
In the nine games since his recall that Long has partnered Danny Ings up front, the pair have scored nine goals; seven for Ings, two for Long.
“The manager decided to try me and Ingsy together and we managed to get a few results – keep supplying Ingsy with the goals and he takes all the headlines!” he jokes.
“I feel like my game has been really good. I played against Wolves, managed to score and I thought that was my worst performance, but everybody was raving about how well I played because I got that goal.
“It is strange, but I know the lads and I know myself – if I have a good game, the lads appreciate what I bring to the team.
“I don’t know why but it’s always towards the end of seasons that I start getting the goals. I’m not putting that pressure on myself, but obviously I’m going to try everything I can to get on the scoresheet.
“For me it is all about results at the moment. We’re on 31 points now and we’re looking up rather than looking down. As long as Danny doesn’t stop scoring, it takes the pressure off me a bit!”
Long is used to being judged on his goals, whether he likes it or not, but his threat to opposition goalkeepers has undeniably increased of late.
Having been denied his first goal of the season by one of those hair’s breadth VAR decisions in the FA Cup against Huddersfield, he got off the mark against Wolves in Saints’ next home game, before netting in the cup replay at Tottenham.
But it’s the partnership with Ings that has really helped nail down his place in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s mind.
“I think we get each other,” Long says. “I have a bit of experience, so I think he understands what I’m going to do, and he’s a talented footballer as well.
“I don’t mind throwing myself about, upsetting defenders and holding the ball up, and that allows him to get time in the box where he’s lethal. He’s a brilliant finisher.
“Don’t get me wrong, he’s good with his build-up play as well, but any chance we can get for me to do the work and get him into the box, it’s always good for the team – as you can see, 15 goals in the Prem this season and a lot more to come.
“He’s one of the top strikers in the league at finishing, so you want to get him in the box.”
It’s a pairing that sets the tone for Hasenhüttl’s pressing game. Defending against Long and Ings in tandem gives defenders no time to breathe, helping Ings to profit from tired minds and tired legs with his poacher’s instinct.
“If one person doesn’t press in the right manner with the right attitude, it kills everybody else,” Long explains. “I think you can see in our performances over the last couple of months that we’ve got it right.
“Instead of being half there, half not, and being easy for the opposition to play around us, we’ve been fully committed and been there on time.
“Danny knows when he goes I’m behind him. And I know when I go Pierre (Højbjerg) and Prowsey are coming behind me. Everybody is on the same wavelength.
“I think that’s why we’re getting the results we’re getting, because everyone is committed to what the manager wants us to do.”
Long is now showing the potential to repeat last season’s spring-time heroics a couple of months early.
Having surpassed the 50-goal mark in the Premier League in 2019, he clearly knows where the net is, but there was a time when his last four goals in the competition had all come under different managers, and he was finding it hard to get on a run.
It would be natural for his confidence to wane, but those goals against Liverpool, Wolves, Watford and Bournemouth – all in the space of three weeks – revitalised his own self-belief, which had taken a hit, assisted by online trolls.
His social media exile is something Long has spoken about before, but it’s still interesting to revisit the conversation and listen to the benefits of withdrawing himself from the bubble.
“I think it was over a year ago,” he recalls. “I was doing an interview for The Premier League Show or something, and he said, ‘I was checking online to see what your account was saying and your last tweet was 14 months ago!’
“I think a few players have done it. I was never really into it – I think it was a bit after my time that it really got big. I didn’t enjoy it, so I decided enough was enough.
“I don’t read into anybody else’s opinions apart from the lads here and the manager. I never really took any notice of it. I kept telling myself, ‘just try to ignore it’.
“Even when it was good news I didn’t take any notice, so why listen to the bad stuff? There’s so much negativity, especially on Twitter.
“I never really posted anything anyway so I decided to come off it and it’s been refreshing. I’m not sat at home on my phone now. I’m playing with the kids or doing something else.
“You can lose yourself in it. Even on the bus going to games I’m not sat staring at my phone, I’m talking to the lads. It’s a nice way to be.
“I do go on MailOnline just to catch up with news, and Sky Sports and apps like that, just never social media – a little bit of Facebook just to keep in touch with friends at home, but that’s all it is.
“My wife is the total opposite – she’s all over Instagram doing videos. I see all of my life on her stories!
“For me it’s just not that appealing. I never really got into it that much, and when you’re getting abuse like that there’s no need. You know yourself if you can do better or not – you don’t need some keyboard warrior’s opinion.”
Free of distractions, Long admits his appetite to keep playing and keep scoring is twofold – not just to help Saints continue their remarkable upturn, but to win his place back in the Republic of Ireland squad for March’s Euro 2020 play-offs.
“It’s massive for me,” he says. Long has never hidden his desire to represent his country for as long as they want him to play, but, in his own words, it’s been a tough year.
“Obviously not being in the squad here, the manager of Ireland (Mick McCarthy) decided to pick players who were playing at club level and I was overlooked. I spoke to him about it, we kept it very civil, he told me his reasons and I accepted that.
“It was tough because I was really looking forward to it at the time and I needed that game time. I wanted something to clear my head because I wasn’t involved here, so that was a killer blow for me.
“I think it was the first squad since I’ve got into the Ireland team where I’ve been fit but not selected. It was tough for me to take – another body blow, as I say, but I’ve got over it.
“I’m still in touch with the manager – we haven’t fallen out or anything. He keeps texting when I’m playing, saying ‘good game today’ and keeping me encouraged.
“It’s about keeping my place in the squad so when it does come to picking that Ireland team I am involved, because they’re massive games.
“I pride myself on playing for my country. I love playing for Ireland so I want to do everything I can to get into that next squad.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. If Ireland can overcome Slovakia in Bratislava and Northern Ireland do the same in Bosnia, Long could be lining up against his former Saints teammate and close friend Steven Davis in an all-Irish play-off final.
The pair have spoken since the draw, Long reveals: “It’s not nice when you’re good friends with someone on the other team and, if it does get to that, one of us isn’t getting to the Euros.
“But it’ll be an amazing occasion if it does happen. To get the winning goal that could send us to the Euros against Northern Ireland would be something I’d be very proud of.
“I’ve experienced major tournaments twice before – the atmosphere and the Ireland fans are amazing. The first time you’re a bit oblivious to what’s going on, but the second time you appreciate it a bit more.
“The older you get in your career there’s not many more chances or possibilities to get to occasions like that, which makes you hungrier and more eager to do everything you can to get there.
“We’ve got a good squad; we were unlucky in the group stages. We had a tough group and just came up short. We deserve our chance to go through the back-door way.
“It’s up to us – we’ve got two games to win and it won’t be easy. I’m going to be doing everything I can to be a part of it.”