Reading reap rewards of the Long game
Cardiff City Stadium
Reading manager Brian McDermott could not bring himself to look as Shane Long approached the penalty spot - but the 50-year-old had no need to worry.
Long checked his approach and watched Cardiff goalkeeper Stephen Bywater dive one way before coolly slotting his spot kick in the opposite corner to give the Royals a crucial two-goal cushion on the stroke of half time in their Championship play-off.
It was Long's second goal of the match, following his opportunistic first-time strike from the edge of the box after a cruel comedy of errors in the Bluebirds defence.
Cardiff tried to force their way back into the contest but they never recovered from Long's brace and their promotion hopes were eventually extinguished when Jobi McAnuff struck a third 10 minutes from time to seal Reading's place in the play-off final.
Long's goals at Cardiff were the 24th and 25th of a remarkable campaign for the unassuming 24-year-old Irishman. He managed just one goal in his opening 10 games of the season but has been a regular scorer since then, prompting McDermott to shake his head in bewilderment as he reflected on the fact that Long cost Reading just 30,000 euros when he signed in 2005.
When McDermott was asked whether he thought Long was the best striker in the Championship, he said: "I think so. He has pace and power. He is so strong, but he is also a great person and a real family man."
Reading congratulate Long after he slots home their second from the penalty spot - photo: PA
McDermott knows what he is talking about. When Long arrived from Cork City as an 18-year-old, he lived with the McDermott family as he settled into life in England. Manager and striker formed a strong bond (they share a love of playing the guitar) and clearly retain a great respect for each other.
Until this season, Long, who arrived at the club at the same time as the now-departed Kevin Doyle, had made more substitute appearances than starts, but his place in the team is no longer in doubt. Indeed, with the Irishman, who is under contract until the summer of 2012, the more pressing issue is whether Reading can keep him.
"Hopefully I'm a Premier League player with Reading next season, the club has given me so many chances - I owe both Reading and the manager himself," said Long, who added that he started the season with an initial target of only 10 goals.
It is easy to see why top-flight clubs would want to sign him. He is very light on his feet, almost dainty in the way he runs, but he is difficult to knock off the ball and has clearly worked hard to develop his game. He links up play intelligently, makes good use of space and, as he showed at Cardiff, is very cool in front of goal.
He also has a strong team ethic. At one point on Tuesday evening, a Reading attack broke down with left-back Ian Harte way out of position, but Long sprinted into the empty space to plug the hole, helping to stymie the Cardiff break.
"I really hope we go up because I want the club to keep hold of Shane, he has been great for Reading," explained strike partner Noel Hunt. "I would love to start next season playing alongside him."
Watching McDermott joke with Hunt and various other players as they carried out interviews after the match, it was obvious they are a group who are very much at ease with each other. As with final opponents Swansea, it seems that they have a genuine togetherness and purpose.
It was telling that every Reading player I spoke to mentioned the performance of Shaun Cummings. The 22-year-old right-back appeared to be surplus to requirements last summer and was left out of the Royals pre-season tour. He had made just one appearance since February but with Jimmy Kebe and Hal Robson-Kanu both injured, Cummings played on the right of midfield on Tuesday and, as Long acknowledged, was unlucky not to be named man of the match.
Hunt added: "Cummings might have been out of position but he played out of his skin. The thing you have to realise about it is that everybody in our group trusted him to do it. That is how strong we are as a squad."
Hunt reckons it is the honesty and collective sense of purpose that helped ensure the season did not peter tamely out. A few months ago the Berkshire club found themselves down to 12th in the table and slipping out of play-off contention. It was at this point that McDermott asked his players to sit down and work out where they were going.
"The manager gave us a pen and a paper and asked us to write down what we thought we needed to do to win enough points to finish in the top six," said Hunt.
The discussion took place at the training ground and lasted about an hour, with every player given the chance to have his say. Skipper Matt Mills wrote all the thoughts down.
"There were 17 games left and we had to work out what do we needed to do. We talked about things like heart, desire, belief and attitude. The boys can speak honestly with each other; there are no hard feelings if there is constructive criticism. It was a big turning point for us."
The coaching staff compiled a list of their own and the two were combined, with the collated thoughts pinned up on the dressing room wall.
It is starting to look like a masterstroke by McDermott. The Royals are now in a run of form that has seen them lose just one of their last 18 games and they go into the final full of confidence.
In stark contrast, Cardiff are left to contemplate another season when they have fallen short of expectations. The arrival of Seyi Olofinjana, Jason Koumas and, in particular, Craig Bellamy towards the back end of last summer fuelled hopes that the club could improve on last year's play-off final defeat by Blackpool.
With four games of the regular season left, the Bluebirds lay second in the table with automatic promotion almost in their grasp, but they were unable to hold their form.
There was a tension and edginess inside the stadium on Tuesday that suggested many supporters feared the worst. Doubtless the news that Bellamy was not fit to play had damaged morale. When McAnuff scored the third goal with six minutes remaining it was like the starting gun for a race to the exits.
Questions will undoubtedly be asked about the future of boss Dave Jones, who has been in charge since 2005 and is the longest serving manager in the division. He stated quite clearly after Tuesday's defeat that he still had the passion and the desire to carry on at the club, but he also acknowledged the decision might not be up to him.
"At the moment I feel lower than a snake's belly," said a downbeat Jones.
"I'll take stock of my life, my position and whether I want to (continue). And it's whether the owners and the hierarchy of the football club want you to."
"It might not be a decision by the owners, it might be a decision I make. It will be done in the cold light, it will be calculated and it will be a decision I make as well as the owners make."
It will be another painful summer in Cardiff, especially if Swansea win the final to become the first Welsh club to reach the Premier League.
Before that happens, the Swans will have to succeed where their near neighbours failed and see off the challenge of a Reading team that has strength in unity and a striker to fear.