Long in the tooth for a young lad but confident in Sheffield United’s future

George Long in action for Sheffield United (Picture: Sport Image)
George Long in action for Sheffield United (Picture: Sport Image)
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DESPITE still being in his early twenties, no-one can say that George Long has not packed plenty into his professional career thus far.

The Sheffield United keeper’s career graph has represented something resembling a mountain range with steep ascents and sudden plummets in equal measure, but the gradient over the past year has been a steady and concerted upward one, even accounting for the fluctuating nature of the Blades’ indifferent 2015-16.

At the age of 22, Long is now ready for some semblance of order over a sustained period and, after a largely uniform season and with the ink barely dry on his new two-year contract, the Sheffielder can look forward to the future with a degree of confidence.

Hopefully, with more highs than lows, which have pockmarked periods of his career right from the moment he made his debut as a raw 17-year-old at Swansea City on the final game of the Blades’ inauspicious relegation season of 2010-11.

Long went on to establish himself as first-choice in 2012-13 and in the first half of a tumultuous 2013-14 before being usurped by Mark Howard.

Loan spells at Oxford United and Motherwell followed in 2014-15, with his stint at the latter providing him with arguably the stand-out experience of his career so far.

It came in a dramatic Scottish Premiership Playoff Final against Glasgow giants Rangers which ended in a sweet 6-1 aggregate win for ‘Well – and it was experiencing something akin to those scenes which will have been in his thoughts when agreeing fresh terms at boyhood club Blades.

It certainly does not take a rocket scientist to deduce that sampling jubilant end-of-season scenes as they toast the club’s return to the second tier in 2016-17 is what is now occupying Long’s thoughts.

Long said: “The loan spells were good and I really enjoyed them, especially at Motherwell.

“It was a whole new experience moving up and living in Scotland and staying in SPL and the play- off (final) with Rangers at Ibrox in front of 50,000 fans was unbelievable.

“It was the best atmosphere I have ever played in front of.

“Keeping Motherwell up is a different feeling to promotion but it felt like one. It was a great team effort and great feeling and it would be nice to do (win promotion) that here.

“I am from Sheffield and have always supported United. I had a season ticket when I was younger, so I am a Blade. Getting promoted is a big motivation.

“I always give 100 per cent, but going up with United would be that little bit extra special and I think this season we have a really good chance.”

Long feels the time is also apposite from a personal perspective to step up, and he believes he is at a stage of his career now where ‘kicking on’ is mandatory.

His trajectory may be upwards, but equally, some bittersweet memories early in his career in the school of hard knocks have also been key in his evolution and making him cope with anything thrown at him.

Handling the brickbats as well as the bouquets is something that has hardened Long’s character and he feels that the rewards that he is now earning have been secured the hard way.

He said: “I have had a lot of games over the past four or five years since I came in as a 17-year- old. I have had lots of up and downs and that is always going to happen in football.

“You have just got to roll with it and continue to work hard and do the right things, day in day out.

“I have been left out of the team before and that is not nice. It can be easy to hide and shy away from the challenge.

“But that is not the way I look at things and not my mentality and I saw it as a challenge to go back to basics and work hard every day. That is what gives you rewards, no matter what gets thrown at you.

“The first game didn’t go to plan last season (a 4-0 loss at Gillingham).

“It was a negative, but I did not take my foot off gas and I put the hours and effort in and fought my way back into the team.”

Long’s avowed aim now is establishing himself firmly as the Blades’ No 1, having fought off the challenge of Howard last season.

Competition now comes in the form of highly-rated academy keeper Aaron Ramsdale, although the signing of a an experienced back-up keeper remains a possibility.

He said: “I have got over 150 games under my belt now. It is not a case of being a youngster, it is time to kick on and my goal is to play in the Premier League and ultimately for England, and that is where I want to get to.

“Nothing is ever guaranteed in football. But I will be trying my upmost to keep that shirt and I will be working hard every day to be the best possible player and have confidence in myself.”

Long’s decision to commit to the Blades follows protracted discussions, which were complicated by Nigel Adkins’ departure from the club and the arrival of a new manager in Chris Wilder.

But Long insists that he never harboured serious thoughts of leaving, with business at S2 being of the unfinished variety.

Long added: “I never wanted to move on. It is a club going places and one that should be in a higher division, definitely in the Championship and pushing for the Premier League.

“With the potential of a promotion and to build on that and move the club forward, it was not really a tough decision to stay.

“There was always interest from elsewhere. But the main thing after speaking to the gaffer was that I liked his approach.

“He did a fantastic job last season with Northampton and if we can replicate that and try and dominate the league which we are more than capable of doing, that is something I want to be a part of.”