The walk across Shirecliffe can hardly be described as awe-inspiring. Not, at least, in a panoramic sense.
But, recounting his first journey along the gravel path cleaved between its academy and first team training pitches, George Long still vividly remembers every single step.
“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wracking and you wonder what going to happen all the way up there. You’re chuffed but, at the same time, really anxious too. Basically, a phone call came down and I got told ‘George, you’re with the senior lads this morning’. That, pretty much, was that.”
Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ben Whiteman and, most recently, Graham Kelly have all followed in Long’s footsteps of late after being rewarded for their performances at under-21 level with places in Nigel Adkins’ League One squad.
The United manager has made no secret of his desire to mine the vast reserves of talent which can be found within the club’s development programme and, having also progressed through the ranks, Long feels a sense of responsibility too. Especially, he told The Star earlier this week, because good role models helped launch his own career. Nick Montgomery, now of A League outfit Central Coast Mariners, the most notable.
“When I got drafted over, Monty, Quinny (Stephen Quinn) and Morgs (Chris Morgan) were all in the team. It was a great set of senior pro’s and I was really fortunate with that.
“Monty in particular was brilliant with the young lads at the time. He knew what we were going through because he’d taken the same route himself, coming through the youth system here. He talked us through everything and made sure everything was okay.
“Monty always had good advice as well. I look at him now putting pictures up of his life in Australia on social media. Who would have thought it eh?”
Long, aged 22, is still a baby in goalkeeping terms but has accumulated a vast array of experiences since being summoned by Adkins’ predecessor John Carver in December 2010. Having made his debut at Swansea City five months later, the former England under-18 international has made over 100 appearances under six different managers although, as those who know him will testify, it was a spell on loan with Motherwell last season which equipped him with the qualities required to become United’s undisputed number one.
Long, whose heroics during the second leg of their double-header against Rangers not only silenced the notoriously intimidating crowd at Ibrox but preserved the Lanarkshire club’s SPL status to boot, is now looking to pass on some of that knowledge to fellow goalkeepers Aaron Ramsdale and Jake Eastham.
“Aaron and Jake are the young ‘keepers coming up now. They’ve both been impressing in training and it’s great experience for them. At some stage, either this season or next season, they’ll probably be required to go on the bench and they’ll be able to draw upon it then.
“They do extra work in the gym and they’ve got three great coaches in Darren Ward, Matt Duke and Jamie Annerson. They’re fortunate in that regard. Midfielder Ben Whiteman made his league debut recently and it’s great to see another academy lad coming through.”
Although United are 12th in the table ahead of tomorrow’s home fixture with Oldham Athletic, Long is refusing to call time on their promotion push.
“In football, you see it all the time. The best example, at the moment anyway, is probably Jamie Vardy who has worked his way up through the leagues, been consistent wherever he has gone and is now on top of the Premier League. If you’d have asked him a few years ago, when he was playing for Stocksbridge, if he thought he would end up playing for England I bet he would have laughed. He’s getting his rewards at a later point of his career and that, for me, is interesting because it shows why you should never ever give up.”
The on-loan Dean Hammond, a team mate of Vardy’s at Premier League leader’s Leicester City, has been a source of inspiration close to home.
“I’ve asked Dean about him and he says Jamie just keeps his head down, gets on with his work and performs because of that,” Long said. “Dean doesn’t get bored talking about Leicester but, joking aside, it’s great to be able to chat with someone of his experience. Someone who has been in a dressing room at the top of the table and be able to pick his brains. I’ve asked him quite a bit about Kasper Schmeichel too.”
Long revealed how a series of no-holds-barred discussions between playing and coaching staff could, together with Hammond’s life lessons, hold the key to arresting United’s disappointing form. Last weekend’s draw at Fleetwood Town means they enter the game against Oldham searching for only their fourth victory of 2016.
“You can’t beat about the bush or be grey in these areas. It’s all about reviewing the game, looking at areas where you haven’t done well and trying to improve them. At this stage, it’s all about minor changes. Little tweaks here and there. They can make a big, big difference. One positional change, one thing that’s been discussed during a meeting, could be the thing that next time out means you win the game.”