Sheffield United: When Long came of age

George Long
George Long
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Nigel Adkins believes in him, and now, after surviving the lions’ den, George Long truly believes in himself.

The culmination of the Sheffield United goalkeeper’s loan spell at Motherwell last season was a play-off at Ibrox to decide whether the Lanarkshire club or Glasgow Rangers would be competing in the Scottish Premiership this term.

It was a night when Long, a former England youth international and Redtooth Academy graduate, really came of age; producing an inspired display which not only preserved Fir Park’s top-flight status but also silenced one of world football’s most partisan crowds.

“It was a phenomenal atmosphere,” he said. “It was probably the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in my life when we came out from the tunnel to play.

“It can be difficult to switch off from the crowd and just focus on your football but our team managed to do that in such an intimidating environment. From a personal point of view, knowing I can deal with that and have a good game felt great afterwards. It was brilliant to get that under my belt.”

Long’s has made 111 senior appearances and played under six different managers since making his professional debut for United, against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium, four years ago.

Nigel Adkins

Nigel Adkins

Adkins’ decision to select the youngster for his first competitive fixture in charge of the club did not go entirely to plan as they were beaten 4-0 by Gillingham. But Long has recovered his poise with impressive performances against Fulham and, most recently, Hartlepool in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. - a feat, he told The Star last week, which can be attributed to his experiences north of the border.

“The whole thing, up in Scotland, was fantastic for me. Just getting 15 or 16 games on the bounce and finishing on a great high was good in itself,” he said.

“But because every single one of those games was demanding, we were playing for something in every one of them - it taught me a lot. It was different to what I’m used to here at United where usually we’re pushing to go up.

“But there, it was a relegation battle. It was an experience, and the lads there were great to me. I feel as if I’ve come back a much better goalkeeper for it.”

Mark Howard

Mark Howard

Adkins, who “reluctantly” postponed last weekend’s fixture with Colchester due to international call-ups, praised Long’s contribution, which included two penalty saves, before returning from Victoria Park.

With United having kept four clean sheets in five outings, only injury or illness will prevent Mark Howard from starting Saturday’s League One meeting with Bury.

But the United manager, reflecting upon the 21-year-old’s most recent display, said: “We believe in George and he’s shown why. He acquitted himself really well, was committed when he had to be and, of course, made two important saves. He deserved to make those. He had earned it with his contribution.”

Long said: “It’s great to hear that from the manager. He gave me another chance to play and hopefully I’ve impressed him.

“It was another game for me to learn and develop from. That’s what it’s all about, trying to become the best you possibly can be and then pushing from there.”

Learning is something Long and Howard have been doing plenty of following Adkins’ appointment in June. The former Southampton and Scunthorpe chief’s expansive style, compared to the more pragmatic approach adopted by predecessor Nigel Clough, has placed new demands on the club’s long-standing players.

“It’s a different style now. We’re playing out from the back and having to link with defenders,” Long continued. “As goalkeepers, we’re learning when to play, when not to play and being more comfortable on the ball. That’s another feather to our cap. You can’t have too many of those.

“Myself and Mark have been working hard on it all summer and in training. It can be difficult at times but we’re getting better at it all the time and I think that’s definitely showing. So, to be able to use those skills in a real game environment is excellent. That’s when you really know how well you’re doing. That’s the acid test, as it were.

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“If you don’t get it right in those situations then it could be costly for the team as a whole. But you can tells how it helps build the play. It gives the outfield lads much more of a chance to do what they are good at, of keeping possession and working the ball. Nobody wants to give it up cheaply and even the goalkeepers have a part to play in making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Given the breadth of experience Long has accumulated, it is easy to forget that, in terms of his position, he is still a baby. Not that the Rangers support, during Motherwell’s 3-1 victory in Glasgow four months ago, were prepared to make allowances for Long’s age.

“You hear at few, how shall I put it, not very nice words,” he said. “But because the crowd are so loud, you don’t hear individuals. You don’t hear actual voices, just what they’re shouting at you in general.

“You’ve got to cope and realise that, no matter what it going on inside the stadium, the football is what matters. The game stays the same,. That doesn’t change and neither does your job.

“It will stand me in good stead going forward, I’m sure. I want to learn and improve.”