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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 21 October 2020

From Gortnahoe to the Stade de France: charting Shane Long's incredible rise

In the first of a three-part series, we track the Southampton hitman’s rise from humble beginnings at Two-Mile-Borris/St Kevin’s in Tipperary.

Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

IT DIDN’T TAKE long for Johnny Cremins to realise that Shane Long possessed a very special talent.

Cremins, underage and junior team coach with the fabled St Michael’s club in Tipperary Town, first met Long when he was a 14-year-old hopeful turning up for international trials in Kilkenny.

With his club Two-Mile-Borris/St Kevin’s, Long played at centre-half but he was the type of player who could dribble from the back, beat five or six players along the way, and score at the other end.

As a result, when Long turned up to those trials in Kilkenny, he filled out a form indicating that he was a defender.

In the first trial game, Long played at right back and Cremins recalls that he was “shocking.”

Cremins had a quiet word with Darren Murray, a local regional development officer, and Long played in midfield for the second game, and had a stormer.

Shane Long Shane Long speaks to the media at a recent training session. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Cremins relays that story as just one in a line of anecdotes to bear out his theory that fate, along with undoubted ability, has played a huge role in Long’s rise to Premier League and international stardom with the Republic of Ireland team preparing for Euro 2016.

He first joined St Michael’s when Two-Mile-Borris/St Kevin’s found themselves in a position where they were unable to field an U15 team.

Teresa Healy, club secretary for 20 years, also recalls that Long had to be persuaded as a young boy to give soccer a crack.

“He was nine years of age when he came to us,” she remembers.

“We had often asked him but he didn’t have an interest.

“A local man, Pat Crawford, was a friend of Shane’s father and I remember when Shane came up to the soccer field in Littleton where we were training and said ‘I want to join now.’”

Healy was the Two-Mile-Borris/St Kevin’s U10 coach at the time but Long broke his wrist and missed the vast majority of his first season there.

But when he returned, the club won the U11 League, League and Cup doubles at U12 and U13, and the League title again at U14.

However, there was no manager and team available for the U15 grade and Healy made contact with Cremins at St Michael’s, who took Long and another promising young player, David Maher, under his wing.

Cremins takes up the story.

“On that day, Teresa said to me that they had a few players who, in her eyes, were very good but that they weren’t going to be in a position to have an U15 club the following year.

“She asked me would I be interested in taking the boys over and it evolved over the course of the summer then.

“There was a little bit of reluctance on Shane’s part and it was a 42-mile trip for his mother Ann to drive him but he eventually decided to come and play U15 for us.”

It was Healy who brought Long to those trials in Kilkenny, where he first met Cremins, but he failed to make the international grade until winning his first cap at U19 level, when he was a Cork City player.

Source: johnnybmakesmusic/YouTube

In his two seasons at St Michael’s, Long excelled and Cremins remembers how he “stood out a mile on a really good side.

“He went straight into the middle of the field and from day one, you could see that he was different.”

St Michael’s won the U15 League title, were beaten in the Cup final, but they won an U16 League and Cup double.

“He was a box-to-box midfielder,” Cremins says. “But he was at his best going forward.

“In the U16 season, his final season for us, he scored 26 goals. That’s a big haul when you bear in mind that the Tipperary U16 League would have had five or six teams, maybe 10 or 12 League games, and three cup games at most.” 

Cremins and Clonmel Town’s Stephen O’Neill were asked to put a county U16 squad together to take on a Munster regional squad under lights at Limerick’s Jackman Park.

The Cremins and O’Neill selection won 4-1 and Long was superb against the cream of the province.

“That night, everybody saw him against the best in Munster,” Cremins says.

“Unfortunately, we never got to play in a competitive tournament but that was one of the best footballing teams ever to come out of Tipperary, in my eyes.

“Christy Aylward, James O’Sullivan and Timmy Purcell were all capped for the Republic of Ireland U16s that year, and were part of our squad. To beat Munster 4-1 was phenomenal.

“Ian Fraher from Clonmel was another capped at that (international) level. It was a phenomenal squad we put together.

“I took Shane up to an international U16 trial. He actually played in the middle of midfield against Darren O’Dea and Darren Dempsey, both of whom had signed for Celtic at the time.

Shane Long and Darren O'Dea Shane Long and Darren O'Dea linked up again at senior level, having played against each other in U16 trials. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“He played alongside John Paul Kelly, who had signed for Liverpool, but Shane was the best player on the pitch.”

And yet Long’s claims for an international call-up were still ignored.

“It goes back to the Roy Keane story of trying to get picked on an international squad if you were based down the country. Those were the days,” Cremins smiles.

But soccer wasn’t the only sport that Long had a love for.

With the Slieveardagh Athletics club, he was also a brilliant high jumper, sprinter and hurdler.

Shane Shane Long represented Slieveardagh Athletics Club with distinction. Source: Slieveardagh A.C.

At the 2002 All-Ireland championships in Tullamore, Long claimed 100m and 250m hurdles titles and in that same year, he won the Celtic Games U15 80m hurdles title.

He was also an excellent badminton player, winning a county U15 doubles title with local club Grange.

And then there was hurling, as Long played for two years at minor level for the Tipperary team.

In the 2003 Munster minor final against Cork at Semple Stadium, Long scored 2-1 in a team that also featured Darragh Egan, Paddy Stapleton, Kieran Bergin, David Young and James Woodlock, players who have worn the senior shirt for the Premier County in recent years.

The Tipperary minor hurling team pictured before the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. Shane Long is fourth from right to left in the front row. Source: INPHO

A year later, Egan, Bergin and Woodlock were still minor team-mates when Long bagged 2-2 in another Munster showpiece with Cork.

This time, however, the Rebels scored a late, late goal to end Tipp’s dreams of landing a fourth successive provincial title.

“I played with Shane for two years,” Woodlock says.

“The power of him for a young chap… and the leap, I’ve never witnessed anything like it before.

“He had such a bounce off the ground and could reach unbelievable heights.

“He was only 16 playing minor at the time but from the very first minute he came in, I never forgot him.

“For a 16-year-old to be on the minor team that the time, you had to be exceptional.

James Woodlock James Woodlock played minor hurling for two seasons alongside Shane Long. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“He was extremely good in the air, had pace, and was an excellent finisher. He had the pace to get away from an opponent, to make room for himself every time.

“He played minor for two years but missed his last year after deciding to concentrate on soccer. He was a massive loss to Tipp but he absolutely made the right decision. He’s doing so well for himself  and he’s on fire at the moment. 

“I’ve met him a couple of times in the last 10 years on social nights out in Thurles. He’s still the same Shane Long and we’d have the chat about hurling. He still loves the hurling and he’s a great supporter of his own club at home, Gortnahoe-Glengoole. He looks after them well.

Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“But it’s a goal he scored against Cork at minor level that’s the stand-out memory for me.

“A puck-out came from the Killinan End to the right hand side. He came out, won it in the air, turned, ran the whole way through and stuck the ball in the net. It encapsulated everything I remember about Shane Long — strength, athleticism in the air, and that turn of pace.”

When Shane was just 16 years of age, his father Eamonn died suddenly from a heart attack but his mother Ann worked through her grief and was a constant support to her son, driving him to and from his various sporting commitments.

Cremins believes Ann deserves at least 50% of the credit for her son’s success and he remembers one particular day when she spent almost a full day ensuring that Shane could make three engagements. 

“Ridiculous actually,” Cremins smiles.

She drove from Gortnahoe to Tipp where Shane was playing an U16 game in the morning, drove to Bansha for a Youths B game in the afternoon, and was heading to Mallow for an U17 International Rules trial. She got back to Gortnahoe that night at 10pm, having left at 9am. But that was regular, and on the Sunday morning they were up and off to hurling or whatever else was happening.”

Healy adds: “His mother, Ann, is his backbone. He is where he is because of his Mammy!”

The time would eventually come, however, when Long had to choose a very definite career path.

And, not for the first time, there was an element of fortune involved.

Cremins revealed: “Shane played for the Tipperary Youths League team in Cork, on a horrible wet Sunday at the end of November.

“One of the four or five people at the game was a guy by the name of Stevie Neiland, Pat Dolan’s assistant at Cork City at the time.

“I had done my UEFA B coaching licence with Stevie and we got chatting about Shane.

“He promised to speak to Pat Dolan about him. So I got a call off Stevie on the following Wednesday or Thursday, wanting to know what our schedule was for the coming weeks.

Source: Twomile Borris Facebook

“I told him we had a game on the following Sunday. Cork were playing Longford Town on the Saturday and on the way back from Cork, Stevie and Pat stopped in.

“We were playing on an old pitch across from Cooke Park, where the Government offices are now, and Pat came in the gate.

“As he tells it, he saw this lad pick up the ball, dribble past a few players and score.

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“Near that pitch, there was a huge oak tree and an oul’ fella was standing under it.

“Pat approached him and said, ‘Please tell me that was Shane Long.’ ‘Yes, it was.’

Pat Dolan Pat Dolan took Shane Long to Cork City and is now the player's agent/advisor. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Pat was ready to walk out the gate, his day was done but not only did he stay, he stayed for a Munster Junior Cup game later in the day and ate sandwiches and drank tea.

“He met Shane and his mother and that’s where Shane’s progression to becoming a centre forward began. The one thing that Pat spoke at length about was the pace and power he had. It’s something that can’t be bought or coached. It was his view that he would be a centre forward and with that pace, that he’d be unstoppable.”

Another of Long’s former Tipperary minor hurling team-mates, Richie Ruth, remembers similar traits.

“I would have been in my last year minor and Shane was 16. Even at that age, he was physically very strong. Age didn’t make a difference.

“We didn’t see him as a 16-year-old or anything like that. He was still very powerful and a class act from an early age.

Richie Ruth Thurles Sarsfields stalwart and Shane Long's former Tipperary minor hurling team-mate Richie Ruth.

“None of the boys would have been too keen on marking him at training. He was always a brilliant finisher and still had the maturity to be an unbelievable team player, always willing to find a pass and work hard for the team.

“It’s always nice to have, that Munster minor picture on my wall at home, sitting in beside him. It just goes to show that he always had that work ethic and it’s great to see it bearing fruit, all the work he put in over the last few years.”

premier gold

After switching to Cork City in July 2004, Long cut his teeth in underage teams before making his League debut against Bray Wanderers in March 2005.

Long made just one more appearance for the club before he and Kevin Doyle joined Reading FC in June 2005.

Long’s transfer fee was £40,000, a modest figure when you consider what his current market value is.

“Even the story about him going to Reading…” Cremins notes. “He picked up a bad injury in the final of the Eircom U19 League against UCD and had to be stretchered off. 

“Steve Coppell, the Reading manager, had heard a lot about Kevin Doyle. He was interested in Kevin but Kevin was out injured so he wasn’t playing in Cork’s first team.

Steve Coppell Steve Coppell signed Shane Long for Reading. Source: Getty Images/INPHO

“Steve came over to watch Kevin playing in a reserve game and Shane, also coming back from injury, was also playing.

“Steve liked what he saw in Kevin Doyle and he also liked what he saw in Shane.”

Those stories that Cremins has told perfectly illustrate the fine line between potential success and not making the grade.

shane dj leahy Shane Long on a visit to Cooke Park in Tipperary town, pictured with Leah and D.J. Cremins.

What if Pat Dolan, Long’s current agent/advisor, hadn’t listened to Stevie Neiland and travelled to Tipperary? Or maybe Kevin Doyle didn’t get injured and Steve Coppell saw him in a first-team game rather than a reserve game, when Long also played?

“There’s a story with every guy that makes it,” Cremins says. “It could have went the other way but it didn’t and he got the breaks.

But Shane deserves everything he’s got – and it’s all down to his commitment to sport. He was playing hurling, soccer, sprinting, hurdling and he was a shit hot badminton player.

“And if you notice his running style, it’s a very short stride, very upright running. I put that down to the athletics training that he got, and that phenomenal leap would be as a result of the type of training he had when he was young.”

There’s a common thread running through the interviewees in this piece. They all talk about what a fundamentally decent human being Long is, and how fame hasn’t changed him in any way.

In April, Long hosted Cremins, his wife Fiona and their children DJ and Leah when Southampton played Newcastle.

And in March, the Two-Mile-Borris/St Kevin’s U12s and U13s were Long’s guests for the 3-2 victory over Liverpool.

“He was always a really nice kid,” says Cremins. “Always quick to say thanks and appreciative of what you do for him.

To me, it’s down to the rearing he got from his late father, Eamonn, and his mother Ann, the legend, as I call her. She drove him 42 miles over and back to St Michaels three times a week, moved to Cork with him and then to Reading. It would have been a lot harder for Shane to adapt to new surroundings without her.”

Healy adds: “Any time Shane comes home, he does medal presentations for us. He didn’t forget his roots. He’s still the very same as he always was, just very friendly and very genuine.”

shane jimmy Shane Long pictured with Jimmy Carr of St Michaels, who was honoured with the 2016 FAI Three International Junior player of the year award.

And Woodlock says: “I’ve absolutely great time for Shane. He’s such a placid guy to get on with, no big swagger or anything like that.”

And so while the old saying goes that you should beware of meeting your heroes, it doesn’t apply in Shane Long’s case. He’s still the same humble young man who says ‘thanks’, carries himself in the manner befitting of a professional, and plays like one.

Just a Tipperary kid with the footballing world at his feet.

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