BIG games require big calls and Danny Wilson’s decision to include George Long in Sheffield United’s starting eleven against MK Dons in midweek was exactly that.
The teenage goalkeeper, drafted-in to replace the error prone and - if the narrative of his recent troubles is to be believed - mentally shattered Steve Simonsen, performed capably throughout Tuesday’s triumph. Tomorrow, when a rejuvenated Exeter City side visit Bramall Lane, Wilson once again seems set to hand him the gloves after insisting Long possess the physical and psychological fortitude required to prosper in League One despite being eight days short of his 18th birthday.
“It wasn’t the toughest decision I’ve had to make since coming here,” Wilson, referring to his selection dilemma, said . “But of course it wasn’t easy.
“But however tough it was, it was important to get it right.
“Irrespective of what the result might have been against MK Dons, even if we’d have been beaten, it would still have been the right thing to do.”
When Wilson found himself wrestling with this most difficult of dilemmas on Sunday evening, MK Dons’ passing style is likely to have tipped the balance in Long’s favour. Nevertheless, the refusal of Karl Robinson’s men to test the 17-year-old’s prowess in the air was inexplicable. Exeter, under the tutelage of Paul Tisdale, are unlikely to make the same mistake but also seek to please the purists rather than pugilists. The biggest test of Long’s credentials - and invariably Wilson’s faith in his capabilities - is likely to come when fourth-placed United face a combative Stevenage side next weekend.
Reflecting on the 2-1 victory over MK Dons, he said: “George might only be 17 but he’s a man in terms of his stature. Physically, nothing is going to worry him.
“He didn’t have the busiest of evenings but you’ve got to give credit to the lads in front of him for that.
“The team as a whole defended really well but particularly the back four.
“George only really had one save to make and his distribution was good.
“In an ideal world you’d probably rest him after a few weeks but he did nothing wrong and so he’ll play.”
Long, together with centre-half Harry Maguire, was a member of the United squad which reached the FA Youth Cup final last season.
Wilson used yesterday’s pre-match press conference to express his dissatisfaction at the Football League’s recent decision to accept an overhaul of the academy system.
The Elite Player Performance Plan, which replaces the current tribunal system, makes it easier for top-flight clubs to sign youngsters from less illustrious teams.
Had FL members chosen to reject the proposals, then the Premier League had warned they would withhold their funding for youth development.
“We’ve been railroaded,” said Wilson. “Simple as.
“The big boys have told us what to do and like it or lump it.
“They’ve virtually been given license to have what they want. We’re talking about the next generation of Premier League players there’s no point in moaning because we (FL clubs) voted for it.
“If you look at someone like George then, under this, we could have lost him for a pittance.”
Although Wilson insists that Simonsen, who endured difficult afternoons against both Sheffield Wednesday and Leyton Orient, still has a “big role to play,” Long’s strength of character is such that he was informed he would start against MK Dons on Monday rather than receiving the customary nod just before kick-off.
“Simmo, I’ve got to say, has been great with George,” Wilson revealed.
“He was so helpful to him beforehand and he’s been exactly the same in training since too.
“That will have meant a lot to George because I suppose there is a chance he might have felt a bit awkward.”
Meanwhile, striker Chris Porter could return to action against Tisdale’s men after recovering from an ankle problem.
But midfielder Lee Williamson is definitely out after suffering a gash to his leg at Brisbane Road.
“Chris should be available for selection,” said Wilson. “He’s trained with us and is okay so that’s good to see because it’s another option.”