Pluck of the Irish helps Long to plot latest Reading lesson

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The Independent Football

When Brian McDermott was a little winger with a shock of black hair trying to force his way into the Arsenal first team, there was a strong contingent from both sides of the Irish border. Liam Brady, David O'Leary and Frank Stapleton wore one shade of green; Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Sammy Nelson and the manager, Terry Neill, another. As chief scout of Reading many moons later, McDermott in turn found rich pickings in Ireland, not least because the Dolan brothers, Eamon and Pat, were respectively the managers of Reading's academy and Cork City.

So it was that the Cork strikers Kevin Doyle and Shane Long arrived at the Madejski Stadium, where Ireland's Hunt brothers, Stephen and Noel, have also featured, along with Alan Bennett and David Mooney. Long, who had played only one senior game at Cork, was very much the makeweight in what sounded rather like a "buy one, get one free" purchase, but with Doyle having moved on to Wolves last summer, the younger man is coming into his own. Bold enough to request taking over his countryman's No 9 shirt, he suddenly blossomed in the new year with five goals in seven games, including the glancing header at the Kop end that knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup third round.

Hard-earned victories over Burnley and West Bromwich Albion have taken the club to today's quarter-final at home to Aston Villa just one step from a first semi-final since 1927 when they were beaten 3-0 by the eventual winners, Cardiff. Alas, the home tie with West Bromwich brought Long's second red card of the season, and in his absence Reading have won three games out of four and have just beaten Sheffield Wednesday 5-0.

"Everyone wants to play, so it's a hard decision for the manager," Long admitted. Selection will not be made any easier by the pair's close relationship since Long arrived from the Emerald Isle five years ago and went into lodgings with McDermott, where they would strum guitars together; at least when the chief scout was at home rather than out on the road.

McDermott modestly attributes all the musical aptitude to the Tipperary man, and is equally generous about the sporting ability of the first Irishman to play hurling as well as international football at Dublin's Croke Park: "Athletically he's got so much, and I think we're starting to see the real Shane Long now. He feels a big part to play now. I think he'll still keep improving.

"He was fantastic at hurling. Sometimes he'll bring his stick out and knock a few balls around and he's unbelievable. When he lived with me I took him to the driving range, he'd never played golf before and he was smashing the ball miles. He's just got great hand-eye co-ordination."

The two red cards from rash tackles suggested an occasional breakdown in foot-eye co-ordination, but Long says it will not happen again: "I learnt not to go jumping into tackles. They were strikers' challenges, stupid challenges, and I can't complain."

Long's famous goal at Anfield effectively earned McDermott, who was on trial at the time, the manager's job on a 12-month rolling contract. Both men feel it was a turning point in the club's season after they had sunk into relegation trouble, bringing the dismissal after only five months of Brendan Rodgers. Yet, as Long says, from having nothing to lose when drawn at home to Liverpool, there is suddenly "a lot to lose" in the shape of a Wembley semi-final.

For McDermott there has nevertheless been a huge benefit, reflected in improved Championship form and an end to the astonishing run of failures at home (two League wins in the whole of 2009). "The fact we've gone to Liver-pool and won gives you that confidence. Beating Burnley and winning at the Hawthorns, where everyone would have expected us to lose, that's galvanised us. As a group [of players] they started to believe we can move mountains. I like playing at home, you should do. Now we haven't lost here in 2010 and it's a great place to be. It's [about] getting the feelgood factor around the place, and I feel that's happening. The Cup run's put us back on the map."

Much of the credit for that must go to the shaven-headed, bespectacled figure finally given a managerial chance at the age of 48. "No one knew who I was except a few Reading fans and people in the kitchen," he says. Villa's Martin O'Neill does, even if he has long forgotten a 2-2 draw in the Conference as manager of Wycombe Wanderers, when McDermott was deputising in charge of the opposing Yeovil Town team.

With O'Neill in the technical area and Long desperate for the chance to take on his international team-mate Richard Dunne, Irish eyes of either claret or blue should be smiling by 3.30 this afternoon.