The drive to impress is a recurring theme in George Long's words on the FIFA U-20 World Cup. This is hardly surprising, given that impressing is exactly what he did throughout his first full season in English football.
After being thrust onto the stage in September, the now 19-year-old goalkeeper went from strength to strength with Sheffield United, holding down a place between the sticks for the promotion-chasing third-tier side ahead of more experienced competitors.
While the club's charge towards the Championship ultimately ended in disappointment, Long's selection amongst Peter Taylor's England squad reflects the fact that the young shot-stopper was one of the outstanding positives from the Blades' campaign. The experience he gained, the youngster believes, opened the door for his trip to Turkey 2013.
“Without playing as many games as I have done I wouldn't have been selected, so it's a been a real bonus this year,” said the Sheffield native, who clocked up 43 appearances in 2012/13. “I wouldn't have expected to play as many times as I have when it started. I really, really appreciate the chance I've been given.”
Growing as you go
The development since being subbed on early in the season, to his final match of the season against Yeovil in the League One play-off semi-final, has been massive, Long feels. “There's a big difference in my general ability, but not just that, I think it's more my general confidence in games and knowing how to deal with different situations,” he reflected.
“The more you play, the more different situations you see, and you learn how to deal with them better than the first time. The more experience you get makes your job a bit easier.”
His coaches at United have spoken highly of his mental attributes too, which have no doubt aided Long in handling the pressure, allowing him to maintain the necessary emotional calm to successfully act as the last line of defence. “When it's going well you don't want to get too carried away with yourself, just keep a level head,” he said.
“It's similar when you've had a bad game or things aren't going too well, don't get too down and try to keep a consistency in your performances, which I think helps over a season.”
Long initially made his debut in 2011 at the age of 17 years and 183 days, making him the youngest keeper in the club's 124 year history. Now established, Long credits a consistent and experienced defence in helping him find his feet in the first team, but is also keen to praise the influence of coach Darren Ward and veteran keeper Danny Coyne.
“[Ward] has settled me into the team really well and has been a guide for me when settling into my first season. He's been a top class coach and a mentor as well. [They] have been great for me this season and helped me massively.”
Having made an appearance for the England U-18 side, Long has slotted straight into the switch from club to country and has got down to work right from the off. “Coming into this camp I knew what the set-up was like and what the training would be like, so I had a bit more of an idea what to expect,” he said. “It meant I could go straight in and try to impress during training and show them what I can do.”
England kick-off their U-20 World Cup against Group E rivals Iraq, but there are no doubts about what he and the squad are out to achieve. “From a team point of view, we're obviously going out there to win, impress and play well, and that's the main thing. From a personal point of view, it would be really good to play, so I'll try to impress in training, catch the gaffer's eye and hopefully get some game time.”
“From a team point of view, we're obviously going out there to win, impress and play well, and that's the main thing. From a personal point of view, it would be really good to play, so I'll try to impress in training, catch the gaffer's eye and hopefully get some game time.”
Looking up the ladder
Optimism emanates from Long when he talks about the prospects of the tournament, with his eyes on the future gains it promises. “I think taking in a World Cup at such a young age will be a great experience and one you can build on throughout your career to move up the footballing ladder, try to impress people and show them what you can do.
“It will be a great experience and something you can look back on, hopefully being able to say you had a great time out there and it improved you as a player.”
He would love his time at Turkey 2013 to set him toward emulating one of his goalkeeping idols, England and Manchester City's Joe Hart, who also began his professional career in the lower leagues. “He's one of the best in the world so is a great role model to have, plus he's English as well, which is another great attribute,” Long said with a smile.
“I think he's set a great example, starting at Shrewsbury and playing quite a few league games there before moving to the Premier League and has gone on to become England's number one, so it's a great example of something you can aspire to be and a path to follow.”
Should Long get the nod for England tomorrow in Antalya he will do something Hart is yet to, by appearing at a FIFA global finals, and no doubt Long hopes that should he impress like he wants to, he will take a few steps closer to matching the City stopper.