Tipp hurling’s loss is Irish soccer’s gain as Long prepares for Euro finals

Eamonn Wynne

Eamonn Wynne

Once described as Tipperary hurling’s the one that got away, he’s now an English Premiership soccer player and Irish international who’ll be heading to Poland in the summer with the first Irish team to qualify for a major championship in ten years.

Shane Long was back in his home county Tipperary and the Cooke Park ground in Tipperary town, where he played youth football with St. Michael’s, for the launch of the Lucozade Sport Club Crusade last Thursday morning.

Dressed casually, the unassuming 25 year-old West Bromwich Albion player could have easily passed for one of the Tipperary hurlers as he patiently and politely chatted to the media who had gathered to interview a player whose career has taken him as a boy from St. Kevin’s in Two-Mile-Borris, a youth player with St. Michael’s and Cork City to the professional ranks in England with Reading and West Brom.

Before he established his reputation as a footballer the Gortnahoe man also made his name as an underage Tipperary hurler, playing in two Munster Minor Finals and two All-Ireland Minor semi-finals at Croke Park.

Coincidentally, he created history when introduced as a substitute in the European Championship qualifier against Slovakia in March 2007 at Croke Park when he became the first player to have played hurling and international football at the famous venue.

Hurling’s loss was soccer’s gain and the pacy striker, who has been capped 24 times for his country, scoring 6 goals, will be part of the Irish squad for the European Championship group games in June against Croatia, Italy and reigning world and European champions Spain.

Even though last week’s visit was only a flying one that lasted a day, he said it was nice to get home to spend some time in Gortnahoe with his sister Elaine, whom he stayed with; as well as his brother Jamie, his wife Joanne and their children Cody and Eamonn.

He was also impressed with his visit to another former home, Cooke Park, where he played as a youth with St. Michael’s from 2002-2004.

Shane said the money invested in his former club made it one of the finest facilities in Tipperary.

If he has good memories of his time spent playing as a youth in the TSDL, he looks back equally fondly on his time as an underage Tipperary hurler, especially as a Minor in 2003 and 2004.

He said it was “massive” to play for your county and he lined out with the Minors as a 16 and 17 year-old, losing the All-Ireland Semi-Final both years (first Galway and then Kilkenny), although they won the Munster Final against Cork in ‘03. “We lost the Munster Final to Cork in ‘04 even though I don’t know how that happened because we were 10 points up at one stage, that still haunts his memories. Cork scored a goal from 40 yards in the last minute”.

When asked if he could have made it as a senior in the blue and gold jersey he replies “who knows. I had to make the decision at 17 whether I would play my last year as a Minor or give it all to Cork City. I decided to give it a chance (with Cork city) and thank God I did, the rest is history”. He still keeps in touch with Tipp’s progress and a European Championship qualifier against Slovakia in Dublin last September presented John O’Shea and himself with the opportunity to attend the All-Ireland Final against Kilkenny.

“On the day the better team won but I’m still adamant Tipp have the better players”, he says.

Shane is looking forward to an injury-free run in the build-up to the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine, after his last two and-a-half months have been blighted by injury.

An over-exuberant tackle by Aston Villa’s Alan Hutton initially ruled him out with a knee injury.

He had no sooner returned than he was ruled out for a fortnight with a crack in the bone in his back, a condition that he believes can be traced back to his younger days.

“It flared up after playing so many games over Christmas”. And while it hasn’t completely healed he’s able to play through the injury at the moment. “It’s a case of resting it and doing back exercises to re-align the pelvis”, he says.

The frustration didn’t end with the back injury, however, as swelling of the fluid around his heart kept him on the sidelines for two more weeks.

While it gave him a fright at the time, it was just a case of taking anti-inflammatory tablets, waiting for the swelling to go down “and you’re brand new”.

“When you don’t know what it is you’re thinking all sorts but it’s easily treatable”. He first noticed discomfort on the morning of a game against Norwich, when despite everything he still managed to come off the bench and score from the penalty spot. “I was in bits afterwards, there was an infection there as as well”.

He confesses that he’s not a very good patient and since the spate of injuries says “It’s been hard to get back into the team but I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and when my chance comes I’ll take it”.

With Ireland’s opening game against Croatia in the European Championship on June 10th only 12 weeks away, he says that a lot of his friends and family are eager to travel to Poland.

“Times are hard but a lot of them are talking about getting camper vans and driving over and doing it in ‘a Joxer Goes To Stuttgart kind of way’. They’ll get their somehow”, he says.