Nobody can accuse George Long of not being patient. The Millwall goalkeeper made his first Championship start before the international break, ending a run of 55 consecutive league matches as an unused substitute.
When the 28-year-old signed for the Lions in May 2021, he instantly set his sights on dislodging Bartosz Bialkowski. It showed that the former Sheffield United, Hull and AFC Wimbledon player was up for a challenge, with Bialkowski a firm fans’ favourite who had won Player of the Season in his first two campaigns after joining from Ipswich.
Long finally got his league shot in the 2-1 win over Blackpool earlier this month. His confident display suggests he will retain his place for tomorrow’s long trip to Blackburn Rovers.
“I came to Millwall with a view to breaking into the team and showing what I can do – a loss of form or injuries means it usually opens up,” Long told the South London Press.
“But nothing did last season. We were chasing the play-offs until the very last game. So there was never an opportunity just to give me games towards the back end.
“The gaffer always said I would get my chance at some point. It was frustrating at times, because I know the quality I can bring to the side. But I had to keep my head down and keep grafting, day in and day out.
“That approach helps pushing my cause to get in the team. If you don’t see that level in training every day and you sack it off, I don’t think the opportunity comes.
“My mentality has always been the same – work as hard as I possibly can, regardless of whether I’m playing or not playing. That’s just how I operate. The manager respects that. Everyone wants to be out there on the Saturday. That is where the rewards come – the highs and lows.”
One of the reasons mooted for the change of number one against the Tangerines is that Long is seen as more confident and adept with the ball at his feet. On a couple of occasions he took up a position outside of his left post – effectively leaving the goal unguarded – when Millwall were in possession.
“If I come off to the left and make an angle for the backpass that means the striker has got to press me,” explained Long. “That means the right-hand side defender, which was Shacks [Jamie Shackleton], is free to get the ball and turn out.
“If I stay in the middle of the goal then the striker could potentially take both of us out of the game if he pressed me and I might not be able to see another angle to play the ball.
“When you’re 16 and 17 as a goalkeeper then you’re still growing and it’s tough to kick a ball – getting it over the halfway line was a bonus back then.
“It’s something I’ve had to work on. I used lockdown to help with my distribution. I had an astroturf pitch near where I live, so I was up there all the time.
“Over the years it has been a strength of mine. When I was at Wimbledon I got a couple of assists that year – I was playing a lot in behind for Lyle Taylor. Then later down the line at Hull it was [Jarrod] Bowen and [Kamil] Grosicki. It was good to start counter attacks and release the ball quickly.
“I do keep up the repetitions every week. I think it will show throughout the games, it can add a lot to the team. It can be used as a bit of a weapon counter-attacking and getting play started.”
Long’s last Championship start prior to the Blackpool outing was in July 2020, a 3-0 loss at Cardiff, the last of 46 appearances in that Covid-interrupted campaign which ended in relegation for the Tigers.
He did not have loads of notice that he was replacing Bialkowski.
“The gaffer pulled me into his office at the stadium, just before the game, and said he was giving me a start – to go and do what I usually do in training,” said Long. “Was I expecting it? I don’t know. I always prepare to play. You’re thinking you could come on or you might have a chance – my mentality is always to be ready so that when it does come it is never a shock to the system.
“It could be a week’s build up or on the day, like it was, it doesn’t overly matter to me. I’ve played a lot of games previously so I know what the score is and how to get yourself ready for a game.
“It’s just pleasing to get the nod. I thought ‘right, time for me to go out there and show what I can do’.
“I didn’t have a massive amount to do. It’s about doing the bits and pieces when called upon and not going looking for stuff to do, just because it is your first game back in the side and you want to impress.
“I needed to deal with what came to me and trust my ability, which I did. Everything went to plan, really.”
Bialkowski had made 147 consecutive EFL appearances for the Lions – 146 of those starts. Only Barry Kitchener (244), Alan Dorney (176) and Bryan King (168) have had longer unbroken runs.
“Bart was great, there were no issues at all,” said Long. “He wished me all the best and helped me in the warm up. Afterwards he came over and congratulated me and the lads.
“Bart has had a fantastic run in the team – he’s been one of the best players here in the last few years now. I needed to get in the team at some point and that was my opportunity. He wouldn’t have wanted to come out of the side but that’s football, it happens to us all at some point.”
Long signed a two-year contract with the Lions, who also have a 12-month extension option in their favour. The Sheffield-born keeper is not interested in discussing what the future holds in store but has “loved” being at Millwall.
“Last year I didn’t play much football but, that aside, it’s a great club,” he said. “It’s a brilliant set of lads, great staff and the gaffer has been fantastic. It’s been great working with Marshy [Andy Marshall], the goalkeeping coach, since he came in. He has been really supportive. I know he rates me and rates the attributes I bring to the team.
“So getting my chance to play now is the icing on the cake, hopefully I can keep that going.”