“I love hard work.”
That’s George Long’s response when asked whether he’s one of those players who dreads pre-season or relishes it.
And it’s just as well he does, because he has a tough job on his hands to oust Millwall’s player of the season for the last two seasons and one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship in that time.
Long, 27, turned down a new contract at Hull to officially sign for Millwall on July 1. He started pre-season with his new team-mates that day and made his Lions debut during their five-day training camp in Scotland recently, keeping a clean sheet in 45 minutes in their 2-0 win over Motherwell.
Bart Bialkowski played the other half, as he looks to retain the jersey he has had a firm grip on since the opening day of the 2019-20 season.
Long is up for the challenge, and in goalkeeping coach Lee Turner – who was one of the people who recommended him to the club – has someone who is renowned for pushing his keepers hard.
Bialkowski will almost certainly start the season as first-choice between the sticks, but the Pole knows how quickly things can change. Frank Fielding started their first campaign together as Neil Harris’ new No.1, but was injured on his debut and Bialkowski never gave him a chance to get back in as he kept 16 and then 17 league clean sheets, career personal bests.
Long also knows how quickly football can throw up these opportunities, and he is going to make sure he’s ready if one comes along. He’s ambitious, and wants to play in the Premier League.
His work ethic will fit in well at his new club, and he’s already seen the drive of the squad.
“Murray Wallace is an animal, he can run all day,” Long told NewsAtDen. “I really enjoy it. I love hard work, to be honest, so I don’t mind the tough sessions.
“I usually do a fair bit in the off-season as well just to make sure I’m ready. The last thing you want to be doing as a player is playing catch-up.
“So I want to ensure I’m hitting the ground running and my body is prepared to work hard to be ready for the season.
“Pre-season is meant to be tough and challenging but I really enjoy it.
“Bart’s had a great couple of seasons thus for. For me coming in, it’s not going to be easy to get in the team.
“But I always back myself, I know the ability I’ve got to play at this level and I believe to play higher as well. It’s a case of showing the gaffer what I’m capable of and waiting for an opportunity.
“One thing I know in football after being involved for 10 years now professionally is that opportunities come all the time. All I can do is make sure I’m ready at all times, which I always do.
“I think pre-season is going to give me the opportunity to impress and show the gaffer the different attributes I’ve got. Obviously they’ve done their research and that’s the reason they signed me.
“They watched me and looked into how I play. I’ve got utmost confidence that I can break into the team.
“I don’t feel I’ve fulfilled my full potential yet. I believe I can play at the top level in the Premier League. I’ve got that belief and I think things will take care of themselves if I do everything right that I can to maximise my performance.
“You just control what you can do in terms of working hard, putting the hours of graft in and performing. That’s about the top and bottom of it.”
Long comes into a stable club after three years at Hull. Millwall have a core group of players put together by Harris and built on by Gary Rowett.
That was an important factor in Sheffield-born Long’s decision to move south.
“When you sign somewhere you want to think the manager is going to be there for a good few years,” he said. “I think that’s the case at Millwall. I know the gaffer’s done really well with the team and he’s obviously got ambitions to take us higher and be pushing towards the top end of the league.
“That is a big thing for a player because you want to feel stable and settled. As everyone knows in football things change quickly, but here it feels like a great group and a great set of backroom staff as well as the gaffer.
“It’s a really great bunch of lads. Everyone seems to get on with each other. You can tell there’s a togetherness already from what I’ve seen.
“I don’t think you get anywhere in football without that togetherness because obviously it keeps the squad pushing in the right direction when things aren’t going so well which happens across the season, bad results or bad bits of form as a team.
“It is imperative to have that good core, that bond and belief between the lads.
“The signings we’ve made are really positive and it definitely looks like we want to be pushing towards the top end of the league and seeing if we can get amongst the promotion mix.
“The Championship’s such a tight league, there are teams who put a good run of form together and they’re in and about it come the end of the season.
“That’s definitely got to be our aim, believing we can take that next step and be challenging.
“From what I’ve seen so far the squad’s definitely capable of doing that.”
Image: Millwall FC