Livewire Long has Sweden in his sights
Monday, 13 June 2016
Revitalised under Republic of Ireland's one-time nemesis Ronald Koeman, Shane Long is eager to showcase his talents against Sweden on Monday with the last 16 firmly in his sights.
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Republic of Ireland fans old enough to have seen EURO '88 will not have fond memories of Dutch defender Ronaldo Koeman. On the way to being crowned champions of Europe that year, the Netherlands ended Irish hopes of reaching the semi-finals thanks to a winning goal that Koeman set up.
Shane Long was 16 months old when the Boys in Green made their mark in Germany that summer of 1988. Raised in County Tipperary, he grew to love the national game of hurling, an Irish sport played with sticks made from ash wood which demands strength, bravery and skill.
They were traits Long took with him into football. When he later moved across the Irish Sea, the forward racked up 67 league goals while playing for Reading, West Brom and Hull City.
In June 2014, Koeman became manager of Southampton; he signed Long two months later. The chemistry that subsequently developed between coach and player has helped the Irishman underline his talent while becoming a key component of Martin O'Neill's Ireland.
"I'm happy I was playing before Shane developed into a striker," Koeman said, adding: "We did a lot with Shane in all aspects of football. I think he is more complete as a player now. His pace, his timing and his movements are full of confidence."
In a hotel in Versailles, shortly before the Republic of Ireland were due to play Sweden in their UEFA EURO 2016 opener, Koeman's comments were repeated to Long. "It's always nice when you get a quote like that from a man of his calibre," the 29-year-old told EURO2016.com.
"He's given me a lot of confidence over the last six months and he told me I was the first name on the team sheet, which is always nice for a striker to hear. [He's] really adapted and improved my game."
Long's ferocious pace was in evidence when he sprinted through Germany's defence before smashing past Manuel Neuer in Ireland's 1-0 victory against the world champions during qualifying.
"Once I'd seen the net rattle, I think I was feeling the same as everyone else in the crowd," explained the No9. "It was a tough 20 minutes after that and we had to grind it out but [the result] put us right back into [contention] in the group."
A third-place finish in qualification earned Ireland a play-off against Bosnia and Herzegovina, which O'Neill's men won 3-1 on aggregate. Now at his second successive EURO, Long wants a better outcome than four years ago, when Ireland went home win-less.
"[In 2012] only two teams qualified, so I learned that if you can get three points out of the first game, you are sitting pretty in the group and will have a lot to play on," Long said. "That's why I'm aiming for the Sweden game; I've been waiting six months for it."