Throughout this season, Roy Hodgson and Shane Long have shared an objective. Now, with that goal of Premier League safety for West Bromwich Albion long since achieved, it is a destination they have in common. Both will soon be heading for UEFA EURO 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, although on this occasion they will be on different sides, with Hodgson in the England dugout and Long lining up in attack for Republic of Ireland.
Player and manager could even find themselves reunited in the quarter-finals should their teams qualify from their respective sections and, should that happen, mutual respect is assured. Hodgson, after all, paid a club record £6.5 million to sign the 25-year-old from Reading last August, while Long has nothing but the highest esteem for the man who last week succeeded Fabio Capello. Indeed, while the vast majority of English pundits had tipped Harry Redknapp for the job, Long believes the FA could not have picked a better man than the diligent and vastly experienced former Switzerland coach.
Speaking to exclusively to FIFA.com, the striker outlined the attributes that make Hodgson a first-rate coach, reflected on his impact at West Brom and gazed ahead to a European Championship that could, he hopes, create new Irish legends.
FIFA.com: It has been an interesting week at West Brom, with Roy Hodgson becoming the new England manager. What have the players made of it all?
Shane Long: First and foremost, we’re delighted for him. We know how much pride he takes in being English and I think it has always been one of his ambitions to coach the national side. He’s a great manager and he thoroughly deserves to get his chance now. The only downside for us to that is that he’ll obviously be a big loss to us. I wasn’t here when he first arrived, but the team was fighting relegation at the time. He turned things around and the team ended up finishing 11th. This year, we’ve kicked on again and were well safe from relegation a long time before the end of the season - that’s never been the case at West Brom in previous years.
What are his main strengths?
He knows everything about every position. He’s been in the game such a long time that he’s been there and seen it all, so he can stop training at any time and point out different things for certain positions. The things he says are so obvious when you stop and think about them, but they make such a difference. Even in meetings, he’ll pick out little details that might seem small, but which go a long way. It all makes sense in the end but it takes a man of his stature to bring it all together.
Would you fancy meeting up with him again at the EURO?
(Laughs) That would be nice. If we finish top or second in our group, we’ll meet a team going through from England’s group, so it’s a definite possibility. That would be interesting playing against him for a change. But if we get through, I’d be happy to take whoever comes along.
Even now, is the tournament uppermost in your thoughts?
Definitely. Ever since we’ve been safe from relegation, you do your best to concentrate on the next game, but I think everyone associated with Ireland has been thinking about the EURO. I just can’t wait for it to come along now. It’s an exciting time for Ireland and my big hope is that we can do ourselves justice. It’s been too long since we made it to the EURO – I was only one the last time we qualified (in EURO 1988) – so this is long overdue. I think that’s why everyone is so excited about this year and, as players, we know that we can create some history in Ireland if we do well. Hopefully we can do the country proud out there and at least get through what is a very tough group.
You’ve landed in a section with Croatia, Italy and the world champions, so the draw hasn’t exactly been kind. What did you make of it?
Honestly, there were teams in there I would have preferred to avoid. But all I would say is that we tend to do well against the big countries. Most people won’t expect us to come out of this group but I think it suits Ireland being the underdogs, so hopefully that will work in our favour. And I don’t think anyone will fancy playing against us because we’re tough to beat. We defend well, and not just the in back four – right from the front, we’re very hard to break down. Plus, we’ve got players who can always pop up with a goal or two on the break. We have a good balance there, and the fact we went eight or nine games without conceding during the qualifiers is no coincidence. I think we can cause a few upsets.
We’ve spoken about Roy Hodgson, but what is Giovanni Trapattoni like as a manager?
It’s the same kind of story with him as it is with Roy really, in that they’ve both been in the game for so long and managed so many teams in so many different countries. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a manager who doesn’t complicate things too much and he plays to a system that, with the players on board, always seems to work. You can’t argue with his record.
You’ve become a starter up front under Trapattoni and have been playing alongside someone, in Robbie Keane, who’s Ireland’s record goalscorer and arguably the country’s greatest ever striker. How have you found that experience?
He’s so gifted and you can do nothing but learn from a guy like him. I’m still amazed at some of the things he does in training and, when you look at his goal record, it’s amazing. He’s even overtaken what Bobby Charlton did for England, so that says it all really. He has a good two or three years left in the game too, and you can see in the likes of him, Shay Given and Damien Duff – the guys who played at the World Cup in 2002 – how much it means to them to get to another major finals. I’m sure Robbie won’t let this one pass without giving it a great shot.
What are your own standout memories of the Republic at major tournaments?
My main ones are from the World Cup in 2002. What sticks out for me are Damien Duff’s celebration, bowing to the Japanese crowd, and obviously Robbie’s late goal against Germany. The whole country went ecstatic, so moments like that always live with you. I remember what it was like with all the fans shouting the team on, so I know how much it means to everyone to see Ireland do well and I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
What would be success for the Republic at EURO 2012?
Getting out of the group stage. Spain are obviously going to be big favourites to top our group, and rightly so, but our aim has to be to get that second spot. Getting results against Croatia and Italy is going to be vital in making sure that we qualify. If we can start with a positive result against Croatia, that will set us up nicely for the next two games.
And who do you see winning the tournament?
It’s hard to see past Spain. The way they play football, it’s so tough to play and defend against. You’d think it should be between them and Holland again, but there’s always a team that comes in every year and causes an upset. So who knows? That could be any one of us.