Shane Long is the main man to thank for arrival at Euro 2016
EVERYONE played their part, but we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for Shane Long’s brilliant goal against Germany.
That 1-0 win was the result that prised open the door to Euro 2016 and Jon Walters, Robbie Brady and the rest of the Republic of Ireland players grabbed the lifeline Long had won for them.
Four years ago in Poland, Long was the forgotten man, now he is the main man and Ireland’s hopes largely rest on his shoulders when they get underway against Sweden on Monday night. The Tipperary native finished last season in sparkling form for Southampton and says arriving in France on Wednesday made the tournament “feel real”.
“It was amazing to see so many people turn up for a training session,” he said after Thursday’s workout in Versailles.
“It feels real all of a sudden. I feel good, I feel fully fit and ready to go. It's been a hard training camp for two weeks, keeping the fitness levels up. Now we are over here, it just feels like we are part of the Euros now. We have prepared well and we are looking forward to it.”
The Republic of Ireland had a short training session on Friday ahead of Monday night’s Group E opener at the Stade de France in Paris. Long, who is likely to play as a lone striker, can’t wait for the kick-off.
“I’m just excited,” he said.
“It’s been a big build up. For four months now, I have been waiting for this Sweden game and we are preparing for it now and watching set-pieces. I just really want to get out there now and try and get the result we deserve.
“We have worked hard to get here, we have come from a difficult situation in the group to qualify and it would be a shame to just throw it all away in the first game. So that's our full motivation now, to go out there and beat Sweden and put ourselves in a good position to qualify.”
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Like Ireland, Sweden qualified for the finals through the play-off route - talisman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic propelled them past Scandinavian rivals Denmark. The Swedes began their qualification group well, but then lost form while Ireland looked out of contention after drawing 1-1 with Scotland in Dublin.
“People wrote us off,” said Long.
“I think, after we drew with Scotland, everyone was saying it was a three-horse race [between the Scots, Germany and Poland] and Ireland were out of it. It really spurred us to go on. Of course, we relied on a few other results to go our way, but we still had to capitalise on our games. Just to qualify is an amazing feeling.
“We’ve been here once before and we didn't really perform the way we should have or the way we can and we've been regretting it for four years. So hopefully we can put that right this time.”
Four years ago under Giovanni Trapattoni, the Republic lost their opener to Croatia and were unable to recover. Long says lessons were learned from that crushing disappointment.
“I was a bit of a fringe player four years ago,” he recalled.
“I think I got about 10 or 15 minutes on the pitch in total, but it was still an amazing experience and I have learned from it. I know straight after even the second game, the disappointed heads in the dressing room, we knew that that was more or less it - after the two years' hard work, to just let it fall like that.
“So I take experience from it. I know it can be all over so quickly, so I want to make sure, especially in the Sweden game, that first game, that we start off on the right foot.”
Meanwhile, Long welcomed the news management duo Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane will remain in place for the next two years. The pair shook hands on a contract extension with FAI chief John Delaney.
“You can see how much the players want to play for him [O’Neill],” he said.
“Having him and his backroom staff in has given us a bit of a boost. You can see how solid we are defensively and we score goals as well. To lose two out of 12 games in the qualifying games is a hell of a record for a country like Ireland.
"He is obviously doing something right, so it is nice to see him carry on.”