Shane Long: a brief history of Reading's star striker
Shane Long was a complete unknown when he arrived at Reading in June 2005, writes Royals supporter Jon Keen. In fact, many wondered if his only role was to keep Kevin Doyle company, as they were both signed together from Cork City. This was for a combined fee of around £80,000, on the recommendation of Cork’s manager, Pat Dolan, to his brother Eamonn, who was Reading’s academy manager. But whilst we knew something of Doyle and his potential, nothing was known about 18 year-old Shane.
Talk from the camp in the early days was mainly how quiet and shy he was, until he surprised everyone with his guitar-playing and singing – I remember Steve Coppell telling a fans’ forum how surprised the whole squad was when shy little Shane, who wouldn’t say “boo” to a goose, suddenly came alive with a guitar in his hand.
That first season was Reading’s record-breaking 106 point Championship-winning season and, as Doyle, Kitson and Lita scored buckets of goals, Shane’s chances were limited. Steve Coppell tended to keep him back as an impact substitute, and in that first season Shane started one Championship game but came off the bench 10 times, scoring three times in the process.
Reviews were mixed for Shane – he was obviously immensely strong and would never give up on chasing a lost cause, but it was also clear that he was still learning the game. He’d come to it relatively late, as a teenager, having been a very promising Hurler – in fact he’d appeared in two Under-18 All-Ireland Hurling Championship semi-finals with Tipperary at Croke Park. Incidentally, when he came on as substitute for the Republic of Ireland against Slovakia in March 2007 Shane became the first person ever to have played both hurling and international football at that venue. But what we saw was a raw footballer – great enthusiasm and energy, but some of the skills and tactical awareness to be expected in a player of Shane’s age seemed to be lacking.
The next three seasons – two in the Premier League and one struggling to return to it – didn’t do him many favours. Despite still needing match-time and obviously desperate for experience, Steve Coppell persisted in keeping him back as an “impact sub”. In two Premier League seasons he started only 16 league matches but came off the bench 34 times, scoring just five goals.
The majority of Reading supporters – as well as at least one senior coach – believed that if ever a player would benefit from the experience to be gained from a loan spell to a lower level then Shane would be that player. But that didn’t happen and the next season saw the same pattern – 11 starts and 26 substitute appearances. Things changed slightly the following season under Brendan Rodgers, but the whole team laboured under a massive cloud of despondency and ineptitude and Shane only played 10 games under Rodgers, without scoring.
The turning point came when Brian McDermott took over in December 2009 – and for many the resurrection of Shane’s career will be high on the list of miracles Brian has performed in the last 18 months. McDermott’s great talent is how he understands and motivates his players, and the relationship he has with Shane illustrates this perfectly. As Chief Scout and Reserve Team Manager under both Coppell and Rodgers, he probably knows more about Shane Long and how to get the best out of him than anyone else alive – and he oversaw Shane’s development from a shy teenager in a strange country to a supreme goal-scoring machine.
It’s obvious that Shane is very much a “confidence player”, and Brian knows how to manage him and build up that confidence. It first kicked into life in the match that kick-started Brian’s reign, and gained him the manager’s job on a permanent basis. This was the dramatic extra-time win in the FA Cup at Anfield, where Shane was outstanding. As well as winning the 90th-minute penalty that took the game to extra time, Shane scored the winner ten minutes later. That sparked a run of form with him scoring seven in six as Reading surged out of relegation trouble and to the fringes of the play-offs.
By then we were aware of his attributes – his strength, his pace and determination, and knowing he could score goals led to a frisson of anticipation as this season started. But we were initially disappointed, as Shane seemed to be short of confidence in front of goal, and under real pressure. He missed some easy chances and looked to be trying too hard, either snatching at chances a relaxed striker would instinctively score from, or taking a split-second too long “to make sure” and losing the chance. It was only his ability to create chances for others and to win and score penalties that kept things ticking over – before last December, three of his four league goals were from the spot.
But then we saw a remarkable demonstration of Brian McDermott’s management skills. As October turned to November and Shane was hardly scoring, many Reading supporters had lost confidence in him, calling for changes up front. McDermott persevered, despite all the criticism, and would not drop Shane from the starting line-up. This seemed like a Las Vegas gambler throwing ever more money onto the roulette wheel to try and get his initial stake back, as Brian had invested the whole season in Shane Long coming good, and if he dropped him it could have irreparably damaged Shane’s confidence. So he persisted in starting him as Reading struggled to win matches, safe in the knowledge that it was confidence, not ability, that was the problem.
And in December, the jackpot came up – Shane scored four goals in two games either side of Christmas. Since then, Shane has been playing with real self-belief and a real striker’s swagger – the non-scoring forward lacking confidence had been replaced by a deadly striker, who simply scored with minimal fuss. His 18 goals in 24 games since Christmas have played a massive part in Reading’s unexpected rise to the play-offs, and although there was a slight end-of-season lull, Shane was back with a vengeance with two goals at Cardiff City Stadium to seal Reading’s trip to Wembley.
So, thanks to Brian McDermott’s belief and managerial skills (and no thanks to many Reading supporters), Shane is now close to being the perfect striker. He’s immensely fit with superb upper body strength (that upbringing playing hurling, perhaps) and very quick, with the type of instant acceleration that scares the hell out of defenders. And he’s always been a superb team player with a great work ethic – not only covering the whole pitch and doing his share of defending, but also creating countless chances by chasing lost causes that most other players have long since given up on.
Above all, he has added a deadly goalscorer’s instinct to his attributes, and under Brian McDermott’s guiding hand is now no longer a young player with bags of potential – he’s a genuine top-class striker, and it’s been a privilege to watch him develop and blossom. Reading supporters know that Shane Long is destined for the Premier League – we only hope it’s with us after Monday – but if it’s not, no-one will begrudge him his chance to shine in the big time.