Sean Long: The model captain?

A year after his autobiography detailed a life of booze and brawls, the scrum-half tells Dave Hadfield that leading Hull this year will be a highlight of his chequered career
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The Independent Online

Say what you like about the fixture planners at the Rugby Football League, but they have got a sense of humour. Sean Long left St Helens this winter after 12 years as their loose cannon and inspiration. This Saturday, he leads out Hull for the first time in a competitive game – at Saints' Knowsley Road, where he hopes to be greeted more like a returning hero than a pantomime villain, as some departed favourites have been.

Long should certainly get a warmer captain's welcome than John Terry did on Humberside this week, although he admits he does not know quite what to expect. He was at the KC Stadium for the Hull City v Chelsea match on Tuesday night and admits to being shocked by the abuse directed at the England captain.

"He was booed every time he went near the ball and there were things shouted that made even me cringe," he says. "I've some sympathy, but he's probably going to have to stand down. You just don't do what he's supposed to have done. It's just not in the script."

From that we should conclude that one thing Long has never done is have a fling with a team-mate's ex-girlfriend. If he had, it would probably be in his book. Nobody who subtitles his autobiography "Booze, brawls, sex and scandal" can be accused of being too protective of his own reputation.

The full catalogue is far too long to delve through, but the two biggest blots detailed in the 254 pages of the book, Longy, are worthy of note: first, his suspension for betting on Saints to lose against Bradford in 2004, which they did, and his drink-fuelled desertion from England's tour in Australia two years later, when he went on a bender and then flew home.

Super-injunctions are not Long's style. This is a man comfortable in confessing that there were times in his career when partying went on for days. "If I was going to write a book, I wanted to be honest," he says of a life-story top-heavy with drunken escapades. "The main reaction I've had is people laughing and saying they wouldn't admit to those things." Despite all this, Hull's chief executive, James Rule, has described him as the ideal captain. "He has epitomised the consummate professional in everything he has done from the minute he arrived," Rule says. "He was rewarded with the captain's armband as a result of that contribution."

Long himself admits to being surprised, as a new boy, to be asked to captain Hull. "I thought they would stick with Lee Radford, but they wanted someone who will be on the pitch for 80 minutes," he says.

"I see it as a great honour. I have to set an example off the field as well as on it. I will be proud to lead the lads out at Knowsley Road. It will be one of the proud moments in my career."

When he walks out alongside his old mate, Saints' current captain, Keiron Cunningham, it will be into an unpredictable reception. "I'm expecting a pretty decent reception. If there are a few boos, they will be like pantomime boos and I'm used to them. I gave my all there for nearly 13 years and I think they respect that.

"It's all right me saying now that I wouldn't be bothered, but if I got a bad response I probably would be a bit miffed. People have asked me if I'll celebrate if I score. I'd say probably not, but it would depend a lot on what sort of try it was. If I score a winning drop-goal in the last minute, emotion might get the better of me."

Long hopes that his old fans will not see him as the villain of his transfer, the way Hull fans, for instance, still do with Garry Schofield."It was amicable on both sides," says. "It was purely a matter of length of contract. Saints, as they do, wanted to go with youth and you can't fault them for that."

Saints have such faith in their young players, and in Long's designated successor at scrum-half Kyle Eastmond in particular, that they were only prepared to offer the 33-year-old Long a one-year contract, as opposed to Hull's three. It is a praiseworthy philosophy that could leave Saints vulnerable in the short term.

"The first 17 or 18 they put on the pitch will be world-class and can beat anyone," Long says. "After that, they'll have to bring kids in and see if they can stand up. If not, they could struggle – that's all I've said."

Long is less equivocal about Eastmond stepping into his boots. "I'm sure he'll fill them well," he says. "Just like I had to take over from Bobbie Goulding, who was a massive crowd favourite. It's a different job for him now, having to take the team around the field for 80 minutes, but I think he can do it. He's got the head for it."

Hull's new captain does not want Saturday to be the Sean Long Show, as he expects a big impact from other new Airlie Birds signings like Craig Fitzgibbon and Mark O'Meley, the latter of whom he describes, intriguingly, as "more puddled than me."

"He's a character," he says of the Australian prop nicknamed "The Ogre". "He hasn't played for a while and, the way he's been going at it in training, he's going to kill someone if he doesn't get a game soon."

It is another pantomime element in an event Long hopes will not see him cast as the hate figure. It is more likely that he will get the welcome he deserves, followed by just a little bit more grunt in every tackle from Cunningham and Co.

"We'll see how they feel about me if we beat them," Long says as he heads back to the family home six miles from Knowsley Road. "I think I might get a few boos then."

Long list of trouble: Why Sean is no Saint

June 2004 Banned for three months after being found guilty of betting £1,000 on his own side – St Helens – to lose a game to Bradford Bulls. Also fined £7,500 and ordered to pay £2,205 in costs.

November 2006 Following a 34-4 Tri Nations defeat against New Zealand, Long is sent home after a drunken binge during England's flight to Australia.

October 2009 Long's autobiography is published. Titled 'Booze, Brawls, Sex and Scandal', it proved to be a candid account of his 10 years at the top: "I'd regularly have parties that lasted from Friday to the early hours of Monday. During those crazy, booze-fuelled days, I was as prolific with the women as George Best."