A penny for Shane Long’s thoughts.
The Southampton striker’s omission from the latest Ireland squad was met with more than a few raised eyebrows – and with good reason. In one way, Long’s exclusion makes sense. The 32-year-old has not exactly been prolific for the Boys in Green; his last goal coming against Moldova in Chisinau in October 2016 which would transpire to be his solitary effort in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Poor as his goal-scoring record may be, however, it is still a damn sight better than that of the striking options Mick McCarthy has selected for the upcoming pivotal clash with Switzerland at the Aviva Stadium.
It must hurt for Long to look on at a group of four strikers who have managed precisely zero international goals from a collective 21 appearances, and it must hurt even more that McCarthy turned to uncapped James Collins when Sean Maguire – another striker yet to find the back of the net on the international stage – pulled out with injury.
Mick McCarthy has taken a huge gamble and only time will tell whether it will pay off.
Of his four “striking” options, only two are realistically going to be named in the starting XI on Thursday night. Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick will surely get the call to lead the line yet again, while his clubmate, Callum Robinson is likely to be deployed in a deeper role or on one of the flanks.
Scott Hogan may get the call from the bench if Ireland are trailing and need someone to provide a spark that he has failed to provide in a green jersey, while it is extremely unlikely that Collins will get any game time at all.
Both McGoldrick and Robinson have been two of Ireland’s stand-out performers in this qualifying campaign, but not because of their goal threats.
Robinson has been lively in each of Ireland’s four games, whereas McGoldrick has proved to be an excellent link man in the lone striker role. Everything good that Ireland did against Georgia came through the Blades’ front-man and he also set up Jeff Hendrick’s goal in Gibraltar to avoid the most embarrassing result in the country’s history.
That Gibraltar game – along with the return leg in Dublin – was indicative of Ireland’s goal-scoring problems. To only score three goals in two games against one of the worst teams in Europe suggests there is something majorly wrong, especially when none of those goals came from forwards.
Ireland scored 11 goals against Gibraltar in the Euro 2016 campaign, with Robbie Keane chipping in with five. The Boys in Green have relied on goals from midfield thus far in their qualifying campaign, something that represents nothing short of a recipe for disaster. Midfielders can only provide so much of a goal-scoring threat and it is inevitable that the goals will dry up sooner or later if Ireland continue to rely on them.
That is why Ireland need someone like Shane Long. He may not be as prolific or as ruthless as Robbie Keane was, but he has, at least, scored a goal for his country and he brings something different to the table.
Where McGoldrick will drop deep to pick up the ball and link up the play, Long will wait on the shoulder of the last man for a through ball or a flick. McGoldrick has been excellent for Ireland under McCarthy and has arguably been their best player this year, but playing him up top alone makes it exceedingly easy to defend against.
If McCarthy were to take a chance and play him alongside Long and his blistering pace, however, it would at least give the Swiss something to think about it. As it stands, they will be able to play a high line and suffocate anything Ireland try because there is genuinely no threat of anyone getting in behind them.
Only Callum Robinson has the pace to trouble the Swiss defence, but he has shown no inclination to play on the shoulder of the last defender so far in his Irish career. Granted, the argument could be made that Scott Hogan could play the role of second striker, but it is highly likely that McCarthy will consign him to the bench.
Besides, when given the choice between a Championship striker with no goals from three international caps and an experienced Premier League striker who has netted 17 times for his country and ranks seventh on its list of all-time scorers, most people wouldn’t even have to think about the decision.
It could be argued that Long’s omission stems back to the old management regime. Long suffered under the management of Martin O’Neill, who preferred to use burly target men like Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy to fire long balls up to, rather than take advantage of Long’s pace.
He was left on the bench for much of Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and was only called into action ad hoc, usually when defences were tiring and Ireland needed a goal. His crucial goals against Germany and Poland in 2015 both came as a substitute as O’Neill refused to sacrifice his safety-first style to accommodate his most dangerous striker.
O’Neill’s style continued into the World Cup qualifying campaign and Long’s form suffered accordingly. He was omitted from the starting XI with increasing regularity and found himself slipping down the pecking order. Long’s international blight traversed into club football. A paltry return of two goals in the 2017/18 season saw his stock plummet further and made his goal against Germany and the endless cries of “Shane Long’s on Fire” in 2016 seem like a distant memory.
He had begun to rediscover his goal-scoring touch last season with Southampton and who knows how valuable he could have proved on Thursday night, either from the bench or from the start. It’s hard to understand Mick McCarthy’s psyche in this instance. It’s one thing not starting him, as Martin O’Neill was so partial to doing, but to leave him out entirely doesn’t really make sense.
With a squad of 23 players available for just one game, it represents virtually no risk to name Long among the squad. Whether he would see any tangible game time would then be at McCarthy’s discretion and no one could point the finger at him if Ireland were to succumb to the Swiss.
It’s even more unfathomable given his decision to unretire Glenn Whelan in March given that Whelan is far older than Long and plays in a position where Ireland possess far more depth.
Whelan’s form since returning to the green jersey should have taught McCarthy that the old brigade still have plenty to offer and all he can do is hope that he doesn’t rue turning his back on the one man who has actually scored a goal for his country.