AT FIRST glance George Long’s decision to finally agree a two-year deal is good news for Sheffield United.
The 22-year-old Blades Academy graduate has established himself as the club’s first choice goalkeeper. He’s a safe pair of hands and popular with supporters. It’s telling, however, that new manager Chris Wilder downgraded the original financial offer made under former boss Nigel Adkins and was clearly prepared to risk Long going elsewhere.
Wilder, during his month in charge, has repeated that mentality is a key factor in his choice of player. A talent with the wrong attitude, he says, is not one that he wants in his squad. After the season which Blades fans have just endured, amen to that.
But what does the length of time Long has taken before committing himself further to United and then his decision to accept a pay cut from what was originally on offer, tell us about the goalkeeper? One rumoured to have attracted the interest of Middlesbrough, newly promoted to the Premier League.
There is no denying that Sheffield-born Long has accepted the manager’s challenge and demonstrated beyond doubt he is of the calibre required. Part of United’s FA Youth Cup final side in 2011, Long appears to be putting allegiance to the club ahead of financial gain and a step up the career ladder.
There is, however, another side to this which does not reflect quite as well and calls into question Long’s faith in his own ability. Is the former England Under-18 and Under-21 keeper happy in the comfort zone? Something Wilder may have recognised, thus his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of saving a few bob what many Blades fans regard as one of their favourite sons. Was there already a question mark about the player’s attitude which prompted Wilder, who clearly rates the keeper, to test it? It was not lost on some supporters that Long was one of the apologists in denial last season eager to go public on ‘what quality United had in the squad’.
It is also striking the number of supporters who have taken a similarly relaxed view to that of the new manager. The possibility of losing Long was not such a big deal. Why? His career, which once looked so promising, has faltered. He hasn’t progressed in the way that had been expected.
A good shot-stopper, Long nevertheless can demonstrate an indecisiveness which leads to expensive mistakes. Not enough to label him unreliable or a weak link, but too many unforced errors all the same. He has more in common with former Blades goalkeeper Steve Simonsen than Paddy Kenny. Should United sign a talented understudy and opportunity arise, there is no guarantee that Long couldn’t soon find himself out on a limb.
He made his debut as a 17-year-old in United’s last Championship match, at Swansea in 2011. Since then he has followed a chequered path. Of the 230 League One fixtures which have followed – how depressing is that – Long has played in just 97 of them. Partly victim of four managerial changes.
HIT THE BUFFERS
The future looked bright under boss Danny Wilson and, indeed, David Weir. The keeper made most appearance to date for a season in a United jersey with Wilson in charge, 44 in all competitions.
His career at the Lane hit the buffers after falling foul of toxic ex-boss Nigel Clough who saw fit to loan him out for a season. First stop was then League Two Oxford, where he was dropped. Motherwell was a more beneficial experience. Thirteen appearances helped The Steelmen preserve Scottish Premier League status, crowned by a 6-1 aggregate win against Rangers in the Premiership play-off final.
Only last season, after being axed by Adkins – many would say unfairly chosen as a fall guy – following an embarrassing 4-0 opening day defeat at Gillingham, did Long recover to reclaim the No1 jersey , making 38 starts in all competitions.
That United offered him a four-year contract in 2011 says a great deal about how he was regarded then. He has now agreed to a two-year deal on reduced terms from what was originally on the table.
Wouldn’t a player in his early 20s with obvious talent and belief in himself want more than a sixth season in the third division of English football? Wouldn’t he want to now prove himself at Championship level and use that as a springboard to hopefully greater things?
Few would have blamed him for leaving the comfort of what he knows to further his career. Apparently Long is prepared to wait until he is 24 for it to happen. If not by then presumably he will think again.
These days club loyalty is rare. It’s unlikely this is an example. The goalkeeper’s worrying lack of ambition is, for the moment at least, United’s gain.