The first time I remember seeing Sam Long he was 18-years-old and stood in a school assembly hall handing out end of season awards to a local junior football club having signed his first professional contract a few days earlier.
Long was unremarkable; his hair was short and he was wearing jeans, trainers and a hoodie, looking indistinguishable from the teenagers he was rewarding. The year before, the club had attracted England international Eniola Aluko. By contrast, dressed in her England tracksuit, she looked comfortable in her ambassadorial role.
One of the coaches congratulated Long on his new contract; though most didn’t know who he was. My thoughts were less magnanimous, it had been nearly a decade since Dean Whitehead and Sam Ricketts had cultivated successful careers in the game and two decades since Joey Beauchamp and Chris Allen had done the same. Long didn’t seem the type that was likely to follow in their footsteps.
There are always players that fans see as being the great new hope for the club; there were frenzied calls for James Roberts and Tyrone Marsh to solve our goalscoring problems despite being inexperienced teenagers, like many others, they quickly faded from the scene.
Long’s debut was as a substitute for James Constable in 2013 away to Accrington Stanley. The team, managed by Chris Wilder, mixed veterans from our Conference promotion season – Constable, Damian Batt and Alfie Potter – with experienced pros like Michael Duberry who had been brought in to fire us towards promotion. Duberry had already picked Long out for his work ethic and lack of ego, praising the influence of Chris Allen, his youth team coach, for instilling a culture of listening and learning which, he said, would serve him well.
It would be another year before Long would make his first start. With Wilder moving on to Northampton, caretaker manager Mickey Lewis gave him his debut in a draw at Morecambe. It was an illustration of Lewis’ generous character to give young players a chance, even if it was sometimes at the expense of results. Lewis was quick to praise Long’s performance, in what was otherwise a disappointing display.
The arrival of Michael Appleton and new ownership in 2014 saw a revolution at the club. Long wasn’t an established player and with Appleton impatient to find a winning formula, his chances were limited to eight games, although he did score his first goal against Southend.
Appleton churned through over 40 players in his first season, weeding out many of Chris Wilder’s signings who he saw as having a loser’s mentality. Long could easily have been swept away in the tidal wave, but he survived the cull, going on a six-week loan to Kidderminster in November 2014 as part of a deal that brought Chey Dunkley to the club.
With the painful screwdriver work complete; everything seemed to be falling into place for Long as the 2015/16 season approached. Jake Wright called him the best player in pre-season; in a crowded field, it was quite an accolade.
It went further; Michael Appleton started implementing a philosophy inspired by the book Legacy – which details the winning formula of the All-Blacks. He established a leadership group to build cohesiveness and deal with squad issues; Long was made part of it to stand alongside more experienced first team regulars.
Then, just as things started to click, Long was stretchered off in a League Cup tie at Hillsborough with an ankle ligament injury that plagued him all season. He returned to the bench for the 2016 EFL Trophy defeat to Barnsley, but while the club were advancing, Long was stuck in the physio’s room.
Long would make the bench a year later for another EFL Trophy final against Coventry, but injuries slowed his progress. When Pep Clotet replaced Appleton in 2017, the new manager turned to experienced players, a rainbow alliance of old mates. When he was fit, Long was loaned out to Hampton and Richmond Borough.
To outsiders, it seemed that the club were running Long’s contract down; he’d started four league games in three years and faced the prospect of getting to the end of his deal with little or no experience and no reputation to take him elsewhere.
It would be romantic to suggest that Karl Robinson spotted Long’s potential and nurtured him into the player he is today, but that wouldn’t be wholly true. Robinson wanted a modern full-back, an auxiliary midfielder expected to defend and attack for 90 minutes. He strained his resources to land someone with the modern characteristics of pace, energy, resilience and those crucial defensive and attacking qualities. Chris Cadden arrived from Motherwell, but the budget couldn’t stretch to a permanent deal so the club signed up to a curious arrangement where he moved to Columbus Crew before being immediately loaned bak to the Oxford for half a season while the MLS season was in recess. When Cadden’s deal ran out, Robinson turned to Long to fill the vacant slot.
Finally getting regular starts, the season was curtailed as the coronavirus pandemic hit, a late run of form saw Oxford qualify for the play-off final against Wycombe. It was Long’s third trip to Wembley, his first time on the pitch and his third disappointment.
Although Long signed a new two-year deal just before the play-offs, 2020/21 felt like déjà vu; Sean Clare was signed from Hearts and given the right-back’s number two shirt, implying that he was the preferred starting option. The season started underwhelmingly and Clare’s performances we’re fitful. Long clawed his way back into the starting line-up once again.
His return coincided with a return to form and a scintillating winning streak. He was also picking up assists and goals that had been absent from his CV. Against Plymouth, he sprinted half the length of the pitch, exchanging passes with Clare along the way, to score the winner in a crucial 3-2 win. With the play-off race tightening, he popped up to score a memorable last-minute brace to put Gillingham to the sword. Long edged past the milestone of 100 starts and was leading from the front.
Perhaps it was that time spent with the leaders of the club under Michael Appleton, or the guidance as a youth team player under Chris Allen that encouraged Long to take a greater responsibility in terms of being a leader in the team. His willingness to take responsibility grew as the season progressed. The regular season closed with a play-off spot, and two player of the season awards. Next season, he’ll wear the number 2 shirt.
What is a full back? They don’t score the goals like a striker; they don’t show the great artistic impudence like a midfielder nor the alpha-brutish strength of central defender. When you get a good one they dictate mood and tone. Long has emerged as an attacking threat and an active contributor to our success as a club, he represents his community and embodies the philosophy that Karl Robinson has tried to instil into the club. Perhaps he needed that journey to establish himself in that role and build the mental fortitude to fulfil it; now he’s here, long may he reign.