By Chris Slavin
George Long said that a meeting in a Wimbledon pub with supporters provided inspiration to reignite his football career with the Dons.
George, who at the age of 23 has already made over 100 appearances for Sheffield United and been capped by England at U18 level, is still hugely ambitious. He hopes that a season with the Dons will help him achieve his goal of being a Premier League keeper, and wanted to learn more about the unique AFC Wimbledon story as soon as Neal Ardley decided that he was the man to wear the No.1 jersey for the Dons.
For those supporters who may have missed it in Saturday's match day programme, George talked enthusiastically about his fresh challenge at AFC Wimbledon and the full interview is reproduced below - starting with that meeting with fans in a Wimbledon watering hole.
"Me and a few of the boys went along with Simon Bassey to the Dog and Fox pub to meet with fans from the Blue and Yellow Club," said George. "They told us about the history of the club, and I have a lot more of an idea about it now. I heard how the club went up from proper non-league all the way to League One in such a short space of time. It's very impressive, and it was brilliant to have a chat with the fans. This is a fans-owned club, and it means a lot more to them if they have a proper invested interest. I got a good feel about the club and its history. It can only help me as a player to know all about the club I'm playing for.
"I want to be an established Premier League keeper and to play for England – that's still my ambition. I hope I can achieve that in the future, but for this season the aim is to establish myself as Wimbledon's number one."
The Sheffield-born keeper has made a bright start at AFC Wimbledon, his saves in the 1-0 defeat against Shrewsbury on Saturday earning the Man of the Match award. Click on the You Tube link below to view the best of his saves.
George believes that AFC Wimbledon is the ideal place to continue his football education, especially with the style of play that Neal Ardley is seeking to implement. "The modern-day keeper has to play more with his feet. When you get a back-pass you then have to try and find a team-mate – not just hoof the ball forward. I've been working on that in pre-season here at Wimbledon. The manager wants us to play good football, and that's been clear in the games so far. We dominated possession in the first game at Scunthorpe.
"At Sheffield United I've worked for many years with goalkeeping coach Darren Ward, and he played a big part in me becoming a first-team goalkeeper. When I became a scholar at United, Lee Kendall [now goalkeeping coach with the England women's national team] helped me a lot in making the step towards full-time football. Now I'm working with Bayzo every day, and hopefully he can have a big impact on my game so that I can kick on in my career.
"Training has been brilliant so far with Bayzo. We've made improvements throughout pre-season, just tweaking little things in my game. That's the one thing that stands out so far. I know he's great for his personality and charisma, but it's a lot more than that – we've been working on things in training that we've managed to put into practice during games. We're going to keep on analysing, looking through those video clips, to see what we can do better."
Such dedication to improving himself has been a feature of George's career so far. Despite being born and bred in Sheffield and playing for his hometown club, two years ago he had no hesitation in accepting a loan spell at a club far from home – Motherwell.
"I got the phone call one day after training, and straight away I packed my bags to go off to Scotland. It all happened really quickly, but that's what football is all about. It's part of the excitement. One year I was number one keeper at Sheffield United, and the next year I was off to Motherwell! As a life experience, it was brilliant. Apart from a short loan stint at Oxford United, when I commuted during the week, I hadn't really lived away from home. It was an invaluable experience, and it helped prepare me for now. It's no longer a new experience going to another club. It's massive thanks to the staff and the players here that I've settled in well, but it helps that I had those previous experiences."
It was a proud moment for George when he made his debut for Sheffield United at the age of 17, completing a rise that started when he joined the Blades as a 9-year-old. Becoming a goalkeeper was something his parents had encouraged him to do from a young age, as George – now 6ft 4in tall – had a height advantage over his schoolmates.
"My mum and dad encouraged me to try being a keeper because I was a big lad at a young age. They took me to extra training sessions and they were always giving me lifts. Like 99 per cent of kids, I was playing up front, but then a vacancy came up in goal for my Sunday League team, Abbey Lane. I used to play outfield for my school team – and I scored a few goals too! We won the league and cup double in Year 8.
"My parents took me to a walk-in coaching programme for keepers on a Friday night – it was a fiver for an hour of coaching. I went there for four or five months, and then I got a trial with Sheffield United. It was brilliant to go from joining United at the age of nine all the way to making my debut for the first team at the age of 17. It was an incredible journey – and there were a lot of ups and downs. To make 100 first-team appearances for Sheffield United was pretty special to me."
Having represented England at U18 level, played in big cup clashes for Sheffield United, and worked with current Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate, George already has a colourful football CV. "I played once for the England U18s in Italy, and that was really special. To have all my family there as well, it was a huge deal. I still have my England shirt hanging up on my wall! I'll keep that for the rest of my life. I also played for the England U20s in a friendly before a tournament.
"Though I didn't play for the England U21s, I went away several times with the squad. Gareth Southgate was the manager, and he was great. He was very professional in terms of preparation and thorough in his approach. It was also brilliant to be involved at such a high level, and some of the players in that squad have gone on to make the step-up to the full England team. I'm still friends with John Stones – he was my room-mate on England duty, and I still keep in touch with him occasionally. I watch the top goalkeepers and try to take bits from their game. Joe Hart is of a similar stature to me, and it will be exciting to see him back in the Premier League. I was also in goal for Sheffield United in a cup match against Manchester United, and I managed to get David de Gea's shirt, which is a prized possession."
While he hopes to make more appearances at the top level, George is keen to concentrate for now on AFC Wimbledon. "It's a great environment to train at every day here. The staff and players have made feel so welcome, and it's a really good set-up. I want to help this club progress by reaching a high position in League One this season. I think there's a good enough squad here to do that."