West Brom's Shane Long Battled Heartache in Buildup to Heroic Win over Chelsea
Steve Clarke's West Bromwich Albion sit in fourth spot in the Barclays Premier League table and, after handing Chelsea their second straight defeat at the Hawthorns, are just a point behind the Premier League's "big three" after 12 games this season.
Their rise up the league table this season has been built on the solid foundations established by former manager Roy Hodgson, but a major part of their success is thanks to the effective front man they have found in Shane Long.
The 25-year-old arrived from Reading in the summer of 2011 with an incredible amount of potential in his pocket, along with a ferocious desire and work ethic. But after a first season in the midlands plagued by injuries and inconsistent form, Long looked far from being a polished Premier League striker as he racked up eight goals in his 33 appearances.
This season, though, something has clicked in the Irishman, and his burning desire to impress and perform at the top level is being matched by the performances he produces on the pitch week after week
"He's really good, really good," said Long's partner in crime Peter Odemwingie, who benefited from another quality cross from his striker partner to lift his side past Chelsea on Saturday.
"I won't say I've always seen him crossing balls nicely in training, but this season he's been crossing the ball perfectly.
"When he has the ball I know he can do it again, and again the ball came right on my head, I just had to connect."
A goal each for the unlikely dynamic duo was enough to deny Roberto Di Matteo a point on his return to the Hawthorns, as Chelsea fell to the Baggies in the midlands for the second season in a row, and it was the Irishman who picked up the man-of-the-match award at full time thanks to his diving header to open the scoring, before picking out Odemwingie for the game's winning goal five minutes after the interval.
His stellar showing on Saturday was made all the more impressive when it became apparent, through his celebration, that Shane was nursing a heavy heart after the passing away of his grandmother during the week, something the club only found out about on the Friday before the game.
"I didn't know what happened," continued the Baggies' Nigerian forward.
"I was wondering why he was a bit moody and quiet. After the match in the dressing room we were celebrating a bit, there was some music in the dressing room, and he wasn't with us but I didn't want to ask what happened.
"It was a big game for us and an important moment and he was there and was working so hard and played very well so he deserves a lot of credit for that."
With 12 games gone and four goals to his name already, Long appears set to surpass his eight-goal tally of last season and possibly break into double figures for the first time in top-flight football. But the improvements to his overall game, his passing, his ability to muscle defenders almost twice his size off the ball and his tireless work ethic are already proving to be major factors to his side's early season success, regardless of his achievements in front of goal.
With almost a third of the season gone, few would have predicted that the Baggies would be positioned where they are in the table, knocking on the door of Europe's major club competitions. If Long and his fellow teammates can maintain their focus and drive, a place in the Premier League's top eight is not an impossibility.
Oliver Wilson is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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