Maverick Long ends colourful playing career
Sean Long retires as one of most successful and controversial players in the modern era of rugby league.
Having won every individual and team honour in the club game, the former Great Britain scrum-half steps into the shadows of the sport as one of its greats. He will also be remembered as one of its most colourful, controversial and enigmatic characters.
The 34-year-old is hoping fans remember him as a "maverick". It was his brilliance on the pitch, and unpredictability off it, that will cement his place in rugby league folklore. At St Helens he is already a legend.
Long eats, drinks, sleeps and sweats rugby league. I spent last Saturday in Warrington with him watching his old side St Helens lose to Wigan in their Challenge Cup semi-final.
His commentary of every aspect of the game went almost unpunctuated throughout the 80 minutes. His reaction at the final hooter to his former team's defeat also served as a powerful reminder that Saints rugby league still pulses through his veins.
The former Hull FC half-back had a resigned look in his eye as he promised an announcement this week, and we all knew what was coming; the end of a golden career highlighted by 12 stunning years at St Helens where he won just about everything.
"I'm nervous," admitted Long, as we chatted on the phone moments after he went public with the news of his retirement. "I'm in shock and upset that I won't play again but I think now is the right time."
Long has called time on a glittering career. Photo: Getty
After leaving his beloved St Helens in 2009, injury has increasingly restricted his influence at Hull FC. The current problem, a dislocated shoulder, had already ended his season. He is adamant there is at least another year in him at the top level, but has instead opted to accept an exciting coaching role, although it is not yet known where.
"I feel I was playing pretty well before the injury so I could have got fit and played Super League elsewhere," added Long. "My shoulder would be right by October so I could have had a good pre-season and got myself a job for another team."
So why quit when he knows he is still performing at the top level? We are, after all, told that age should be no barrier if you are good enough.
"Well let's say I played for one more year," he explains. "Then maybe the coaching job I'm taking wouldn't be available then.
"I don't want to play for another year and have people saying 'look at this old chap, he's busted up and playing on when he should have retired'. I'd hate to get that off the fans after a pretty good career and I hope people remember that side of me rather than the other side."
In all honesty fans will remember both sides of Long. On the pitch a brilliant playmaker, game-breaker and match-winner. A player with confidence and arrogance to attempt the sublime, when often the mundane was the wiser call. It was a rare gift that landed him a record three Lance Todd trophies as the man-of-the-match in a Challenge Cup final, along with four Super League titles.
But the 2000 Man of Steel will be remembered for creating controversy off the field.
Long was banned for three months in 2004 when he and Saints team-mate Martin Gleeson admitted betting £1000 on their own team to lose to Bradford. The pair knew they would have a weakened side out, and Saints were thrashed 54-8. Gleeson played, Long did not.
"At first I probably didn't have any regrets," he admits. "I was selfish and foolish. Now I regret putting the bet on, obviously. It was very foolish, I was young at the time."
Long says the second incident was misguided rather than malicious.
"Coming home from the tour, I should've stuck it out. I was actually injured and probably couldn't have played in the last game against Australia but I should have stayed together with the boys, been united and come home together. I didn't. You learn from your mistakes and hopefully I have."
Long's retirement leaves just four British players in Super League who were around before the modern era of the game was introduced in 1996. Adrian Morley, Paul Johnson, Nick Fozzard and Keith Senior (provided he can find a club) fly the flag for the old guard. But what legacy does Long leave?
"I hope fans will say I was a genuine bloke, a good honest bloke, who enjoys a good time," he said. "I hope they remember me as a bit of a maverick on the field, and a great team-mate to have in the camp.
"Oh and a pretty good player as well! If they say all those things I'd be made up and may buy them a pint."
Something tells me Long's wallet will probably stay in his pocket. He won't have a shortage of punters offering to buy him a pint in the St Helens area.