Friday 30 September 2016

Hendrick: My GAA career never took off, I was always a soccer boy

Published 11/06/2015 | 02:30

‘I remember the buzz of (World Cup) 2002, missing school and getting up at odd times for the matches,’ says Jeff Hendrick who is hoping to help Ireland back to another major tournament
‘I remember the buzz of (World Cup) 2002, missing school and getting up at odd times for the matches,’ says Jeff Hendrick who is hoping to help Ireland back to another major tournament

Instinct has always housed itself within Jeff Hendrick's bones even during the time when frailty within them almost scuppered his dreams of becoming a professional footballer when they first consumed him.

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That instinct has already served Ireland well during this fractured Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, when he chose an unguarded position during the frenetic last seconds of the away qualifier against Germany to provide the assist for John O'Shea's unforgettable equaliser.

And, although a self-confessed forgettable performance away to Scotland - a dynamic shared by most of his colleagues on that fateful Parkhead evening - may prevent him starting the return tie this weekend, the affable Dubliner is priming himself for another significant intervention.

"Obviously from the corner," he recalls of his Gelsenkirchen impact, when re-directing Wes Hoolahan's over-struck cross, "I thought it would eventually come in from the corner and I ran for it. There's a defender there.

"Then when the cross eventually came in, I could see it was over-kicked, I could see that he left the ball and I just saw it come to me.

"They always say put it into a good area and that's what I focused on doing. Someone always has a chance and thankfully John took it so well.

Jeff Hendrick celebrates with John O’Shea after setting up the defender for Ireland’s equaliser in Gelsenkirchen
Jeff Hendrick celebrates with John O’Shea after setting up the defender for Ireland’s equaliser in Gelsenkirchen

"You just have to gamble, the instinct kicks in. Sometimes you do something on a pitch that is good without thinking of it. At times, you have a quick look and just reckon there are enough players in there."

The moment didn't faze him when it arrived, for his whole life had been waiting for such an opportunity. As a kid, he'd play football until the dark even though his primary school didn't have a team.

At St David's, Artane, where his twin brothers Ross and Alan were team-mates with Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton, Galway legend Brian Talty encouraged him to develop his nascent love for Gaelic football.

He played corner-back at an age grade two years above him, corner forward for the team a year ahead, midfield with his own contemporaries and, though Parnells may have beckoned, St Kevin's Boys did instead.

There was only one true love.

"I played GAA until age of 15, really only because all my mates were. We had to play Gaelic to get out of class. I was alright as well which probably helped. It was on different days to football so I tried to give it a go. I'd try anything, that's the kind of kid I was. Where I grew up, we played football until dark every day on the green.

"That was always going to be the main thing. Brian Talty might have wanted me to play GAA but it was always soccer.

"I'd have a laugh in school, I wouldn't say I took it too seriously. Football was always on my mind, I always looked forward to PE and then getting out to play football with the lads."

Hendrick watched his family-friend Stephen Cluxton win the All-Ireland in 2011 on cable TV in Derby
Hendrick watched his family-friend Stephen Cluxton win the All-Ireland in 2011 on cable TV in Derby

Many years after Liam Brady was cast out for such duplicity, Hendrick ploughed twin furrows but even at the age of 12, he was being scouted for a higher calling overseas by Manchester United, then Celtic.

"Some of them were good, some of them I didn't enjoy. A lot of people think it's great, you're going on trials. But often it's not. Other kids don't talk to you because you're there trying to get their place. You're counting down the days. You're from a different country and you don't know them, they don't know you. Some clubs help, they try to get to know the person. Other clubs didn't.

"Straight away you get a good feeling and that's what happened at Derby. If someone was going to the shop, they'd ask you and that would break the ice. There were probably five Irish there already so that helped to settle me down."

Aside from anxious personality traits, he had already overcome physical handicaps, suffering with Osgood-Schlatter disease, essentially growing pains which rendered him in agony for much of the time.

"I was 14 or 15, it would stop me from training, I could only get out once a week and it was hard in the winter because I wouldn't be able to train on Astroturf. I wouldn't be able to walk properly and I had to ice my knees.

"I had to tell me mam and dad that I was struggling with it. I got it checked out then. They were worried because it was a difficult time when your kids are going to go away.

"In my mind, I was fine and I knew it was going to go away. But you know what kids are like, they don't want to be running to their parents. Thankfully it worked out. And I kept growing after that."

He has forged a fine career for Derby County and, subsequently, Ireland, with whom he is joined by schoolboy colleague Robbie Brady; he recalls the buzz of the 2002 World Cup and is itching to be in the big time.

"I remember the flags and banners on our road when I was growing up. Imagine all that this time next year? We're only a little country so it's so important to get to big tournaments.

"Look at today, kids smiling in the sun. It would be great for them. I remember the buzz of 2002, missing school and getting up at odd times for the matches."

He watched his old mate Cluxton - a decent flying winger in his regular five-a-sides with Hendrick - point the winning All-Ireland free in 2011 on cable TV in Derby: "I think I'm still paying for it!"

And now, after Gelsenkirchen, longs to make another similar impact.

"I didn't do myself justice in Scotland. We never showed our potential and that's frustrating. The manager has a hard decision but I'll concentrate on doing my own thing."

He relies on instinct as an instrument of timing. It has served him well until now.

Irish Independent

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