AT FIRST glance, George Long has made the transition from substitute to first name on Sheffield United’s teamsheet with consummate ease.
But, behind his authorative demeanour and ice-cold stare, the teenage goalkeeper’s mind will have been a blur of emotion as he comes to terms with his new-found status and role.
Alan Kelly, who made more than 250 appearances for United during the 1990s, knows exactly what Long is going through.
“I actually think it’s tougher to make your debut now than when I was handed mine in 1985,” Kelly told The Star.
“The spotlight you are under is much greater now and so, as a consequence, is the pressure.
“When I was first starting out, you were lucky if your own team made a video of your performance.
“Now, even at League One level, there are cameras everywhere.
“Everything you do is recorded and watched.”
So how do youngsters cope with the demands of footballing most demanding position? Walk the tightrope between glory and gloom?
“Psychologically, you’ve got to be strong,” Kelly said.
“You’ve also got to accept that you are going to make mistakes.
“The best keepers in the world make the fewest throughout the course of a season but they still make them because we’re talking about human beings, not robots.
“I always found that if you prepared thoroughly and did everything you could to get ready for a game then they were easier to deal with.
“If you’ve done that then you’re not going to beat yourself up when one comes along.
“The chances are you are going to know why it happened and, as a result, the chances of you making the same mistake again are going to be less.”
Regarded by some as a potential weak link when he stepped into the breach following Mark Howard’s injury, Long has emerged as a key part of United’s chain.
The saves he has executed against Preston North End and Walsall have ensured Wil
son’s squad enter tonight’s meeting with Portsmouth fourth in the table and looking to post a third straight League One victory.
But United’s back four have also contributed to Long’s recent success.
Their opponents have been allowed only four shots on target in 180 minutes of football compared to nine at the other end.
Wilson has also insisted Darren Ward, United’s goalkeeping coach, must share the credit.
Echoing those sentiments, Kelly said: “The higher up the levels you go, the smaller the adjustments you should be making to your game.
“That’s because, if you are having to make big ones, the chances are you aren’t going to make the grade.
“Having someone like Darren around, who has been there, seen it and done it, is going to be a massive help for George.
“That’s because Darren will
know what he’s having to cope with and he’ll also know how to react when, inevitably, things aren’t going as well as they are now.
“He’ll analyse his game but not in a negative or destructive manner.”
Long might be reaping the benefit of being part of a well-marshalled defence but United’s failure to exploit the opportunities they create means he has also operated under constant scrutiny.
Wilson’s side average only 1.29 goals per game in the competition this term; a figure, the former Northern Ireland international acknowledges, leaves plenty of room for im provement.
Nevertheless Kelly, who won 34 caps for the Republic before joining the FAI’s coaching staff, explained the importance of confronting frailties rather than trying to hide.
“If you own up when you’ve done something wrong, don’t blame it on someone else, you’d be amazed the effect that has on the rest of the dressing room,” he said.
“I quickly found out that, when I made an error, the best thing to do was just walk in there at half-time or whatever and say ‘sorry lads, that was my fault’. If I you do that then people also start analysing what they can do to help rather than pointing the finger of blame.
“I remember once, when I was playing for United against West Brom, I made right ricket,” added Kelly. “I tried to dribble the ball out and play a backheel. I fell flat on my backside and Lee Hughes, who was with them at the time, just looked at me and grinned before rolling the ball into the back of the net.
“I had to go and pick it out in front of a packed Kop so, before I did, I just held my arms out wide and mouthed ‘I’m sorry’.
“One guy started laughing and then plenty of other people did to.”
Despite his progress so far, it must be remembered that, barring injury or illness, Long will be making only his 10th senior start since being thrust into action at Swansea 17 months ago.
“It’s always a big step up when you get into the first team.” Kelly said. “Suddenly, there are pounds, shillings and pence at stake too.”