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The Irishman aiming to topple Manchester City

Sean Long is preparing for his side’s game at home to Pep Guardiola’s men later today.

Sean Long will be hoping to feature as Cheltenham Town host Manchester City later today.
Sean Long will be hoping to feature as Cheltenham Town host Manchester City later today.
Image: Nick Potts

Updated Jan 23rd 2021, 12:55 PM

IT IS DAYS like today in particular where Sean Long will feel the endless, intense dedication to his trade has paid off.

The Dublin-born Cheltenham Town defender is hoping to feature as his side face Premier League giants Manchester City.

One of the biggest FA Cup ties of this weekend, it will be broadcast with a national audience watching on BBC One (kick off: 5.30pm).

Long has already witnessed one extraordinary footballing moment in the flesh this week. He watched on from the bench, as Newport goalkeeper Tom King broke the Guinness World Record for longest strike ever against his side last Tuesday.

“On videos and the internet, you see all these freak goals happening, but to see it live was strange,” he tells The42. “It was just one of those things that you don’t really come across too often.

“It was windy that night and obviously the wind was blowing that way. It just caught us off guard. But it’s a freak goal really. There’s not much you can do about it.”

And Long will be hoping for something similarly freakish to occur this evening, as Cheltenham, currently sixth in League Two, host a Pep Guardiola-managed team that many are tipping to win the Premier League this season, and who can move to first place in the top flight if they win their game in hand.

It is the Robins’ first-ever competitive match against the Etihad outfit, who will be without Sergio Aguero (coronavirus), Kevin de Bruyne (hamstring) and Kyle Walker (hip) for the game.

A shock victory would put Cheltenham into the FA Cup fifth round for just the second time in their history, having previously only done so during the 2001-02 campaign.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the game, the underdogs’ manager Michael Duff emphasised the genuine David-v-Goliath nature of the tie.

“They’ll be getting changed in a bar,” he said of City, though adding: “We’ll make it as hospitable as we can and the one thing they will like is the pitch. You are not going to get a Ronnie Radford scene where it’s a ploughed field.

“They will be able to play on it — we won’t be training on it to make it as bad as possible. We do pride ourselves on playing good football, we are not going to ruin the pitch for this one-off.”

While winning against the team ranked 72 places above them on the English football ladder is the dream, a more modest ambition for Long is simply to get minutes on the pitch today.

Having been a regular with 43 appearances in all competitions during the 2019-20 season, the Irish full-back came off the bench in the 83rd minute against Bolton last weekend for his first match of the current campaign. A serious hip injury, which required an operation, saw him sidelined for a lengthy spell previously.

“I’ve only started coming back from that,” he says. “With the times we’re in, it’s hard to get any friendlies for game time, so I just have to bide my time and if I do get the opportunity to get on the pitch, it’d be great. 

“I just have to work with the sport scientists and the physio here to make sure that I’m right and then get as many minutes as I can, and stay on the pitch as long as I can.”

pep-guardiola-file-photo Pep Guardiola's side are set for a culture shock as they travel to face Cheltenham Town later today. Source: PA

On the upcoming match, he adds: “There’s a great buzz around at the minute. It’s one of the biggest ties the club has ever got, playing Man City, former Premier League champions. Everyone’s really looking forward to it, it’s just a pity the fans can’t be there.

“Obviously, it’s difficult times at the minute, with regards funding for clubs and that, so there’s an extra bit of cash there [thanks to this match].

“And then obviously, for us as players and staff, you’re coming up against the best manager and players in the world. So it’s a really good opportunity to test ourselves.”

He continues: “No one is giving us a chance to beat Man City. Obviously, we’re going out to win the game, but it’s more about enjoying the occasion. We might not get an opportunity to play against a team of this quality again.

“We don’t even have to do analysis on Man City, because we’re able to see them every week, they’re on Sky Sports every second day.”

For Long, the big match, which will be watched by his family back home in Clondalkin and millions of others, represents one of the more glamorous moments amid years of hard graft needed to sustain a career as a footballer.

The 25-year-old’s father and grandfather had more of a GAA background growing up and Long feels he might well have played the sport at a high level had he not chosen to pursue soccer instead.

“I used to play it in the summer, when I lived in Kildare, with the local team called Nurney. I have a good few mates down there still. Any chance I get to have a kick around in Gaelic football, I will — I love it.”

His boyhood football clubs included St Francis and Cherry Orchard, before the late former Irish player and coach Eamonn Dolan convinced him to move to England and join Reading at 17.

“I was involved in the Irish youth set-up. I was sort of the last one to go away. All the lads were already over. 

“I literally finished the Leaving Cert and I was gone a week later. So it was good to get that done obviously. That extra bit of education made me do a bit more growing up, because I went over a year later [than most young Irish players].”

The move was made slightly less daunting by the presence of two other Irish youngsters, Pierce Sweeney and Shane Griffin, now at Exeter and St Pat’s respectively, who Long remains good friends with to this day. Former Ireland international Noel Hunt was also part of the Royals’ first team back then and “great with the younger lads”.

Long often trained with the first team and appeared to be making some headway under manager Nigel Adkins, earning his senior debut off the bench in a League Cup tie against Scunthorpe.

A series of loan moves followed, with stints at Luton, Braintree, Cambridge and Lincoln, before sealing a permanent switch to the latter, with Jaap Stam by then the manager at Reading and Long deemed surplus to requirements.

Was he unlucky not to get more of an opportunity at the Madejski Stadium?

“I think it’s the case for a lot of players — it’s just getting that chance and that bit of luck. I trained with the pros every day and I felt like I settled in quite well. But you never really know until you’re tested at that sort of level.

“It might have worked out, maybe it wouldn’t have. But I enjoyed my time at Reading, I learned a lot there, obviously they gave me my chance to come over and they made me the player I am now.”

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sierra Long went on a charity trip to Sierra Leone with fellow Irish player Kevin Dawson.

The Lincoln spell was particularly positive, with Long winning both the National League title and the EFL Trophy during his time there, though he rejected a new deal to sign with League Two rivals Cheltenham in 2018.

His time so far at Jonny-Rocks Stadium has been frustratingly stop-start — another injury-ridden season saw him play just five times in League Two during the 2018-19 campaign.

The Dubliner is determined, however, not to let such setbacks get to him. After his disappointing debut campaign at the club, Long was given a timely reminder of just how fortunate he is to have a career in professional football. A charity trip to Sierra Leone as part of the Kambia District Foundation in the summer of 2019, which he undertook with fellow Irish footballer Kevin Dawson, gave him a different perspective on life.

“It was definitely an experience, it really opened my eyes to a lot of things,” says Long, who spent his time over there coaching a group of young local players as well as doing community work.

“In football, we seem to moan at the small things. The balls might not be pumped up enough or the pitch isn’t the way it should be, whereas over there, they’re lucky to have a football between 40 of them and they’re playing on dirt and they basically have nothing, but it doesn’t stop them from doing what we all do, playing football.”

And while his time in Africa reinforced the importance of simply enjoying the game, Long is also wise enough to realise how tenuous life in sport can be.

“Especially at this level as well, you never really know [what is around the corner]. You could be injured, and you might not get back.

“I’m actually doing a university degree in sports fitness and I’m currently doing my Uefa B licence. 

“So if I was to continue doing that, I’d have a degree and my badges by the time I’m 30, just as something to have if needed.”

His current progress outside of football highlights the value of spending that extra time in Ireland to sit his Leaving Cert all those years ago.

“That’s where my parents come into it,” he explains. “They suggested that I stay back and get it done, so it definitely helped me in the end. 

“All my mates were already over in England, so I was getting a bit frustrated, asking: ‘Why can’t I just go?’ But all these things work out and it’s probably better that I did do it in the end.”

A passion for traditional Irish music (Joe Dolan is a big favourite) and a flair for cooking — the latter much more so than the former tends to be appreciated by the team-mates Long lives with — is further evidence of an old head on young shoulders.

“A lot of people say ‘you’re mature,’” he adds. “And I think it comes down to my parents — my ma and da raised me well.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Paul Fennessy

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