Heffernan turning Bristol opportunity into goals
Seán Ryan was in Bristol last Monday to watch a Wicklow man with an eye for goal
W HEN your contract is coming to an end, and you are out of the first-team picture, what do you do? Go on loan is the answer for hundreds of footballers across the English and Scottish Leagues, as they put themselves in the shop window in the crucial months before the end of the season.
Paul Heffernan, with ten seasons behind him and a respectable scoring record as a striker, wouldn't normally expect to be in this situation, but as he sees it: "Out of contract in the summer means I'm out of a job, so you have to try and impress someone to get a new contract."
And he is going about it the right way, judging by his man of the match display for Bristol Rovers in last Monday night's live TV showpiece against League One high-flyers Charlton Athletic.
Heffernan was essentially the difference between the teams. He laid on the first goal and scored the second (his 99th senior goal in 306 appearances) in a 2-1 win, but it was his overall performance which marked him down as a quality player.
Wearing the No 9 jersey, Rovers employed him as a target man, and his control, passing and movement were all top-class. In addition, despite his 5' 10'' stature, he won his quota of aerial contests, and his harrying and tackling of defenders ensured a torrid time for his markers. Admitting that he was delighted with his performance, Heffernan said: "I felt good, because I've been sitting on the bench with Doncaster and I needed a game to show what I am capable of."
In only the second game of what is initially a one-month loan, the 28-year-old Newtownmountkennedy native has already become a firm fans' favourite. Discussions will take place in the next two weeks, which will probably see him stay at the Memorial Stadium until the season's end, with a more permanent move likely in the summer.
As a youngster growing up in Wicklow, Heffernan loved his sport and was equally adept at Gaelic football and hurling as at soccer. "I won a Leinster schools with Abbey CS in Wicklow," he recalled.
As a right half-back, expected to defend and join in the attack, his stamina was put to the test, but he was part of the Wicklow development squad at football and played for the minor team. "In the end, I missed out on the championship because I was back and forth to England on trials with Middlesbrough and Sunderland, and eventually got an offer from Notts County and had to make the choice to go over and give it a try."
Playing with Newtown, his local club, which also produced Clive Clarke and Paul McShane, Heffernan came to notice through his scoring feats. The club also moved to the DDSL from the Wicklow League in order to offer their players a better standard of competition.
Although he had several trials for underage international teams, he didn't get the call while he was in Ireland. "That was the team that won the European U16s," he said, "there was some quality in that crop."
However, he did get to share a dressing room with some of those players when, after making the breakthrough into Notts County's first team, Don Givens selected him for the U21s.
"I played in a friendly in Austria, which we drew 3-3 and I scored, and then went to the Toulon tournament, where I played against South Africa and Japan. John O'Shea, Jim Goodwin, Andy Reid and Joe Murphy were in that squad." Heffernan, who completed his Leaving Cert before he joined Notts County, found it difficult at first in England. "I hated it for the first few months, and I wanted to go home. I was living in digs, about 10 of us. It was like a
youth hostel and the youth team manager and his wife used to run it. It was very regimental -- in by 10 and all that stuff -- and I didn't like it. I'd be ringing my ma and da and asking to go home, but eventually I got used to it. You get to know the lads and you start to enjoy going training, and that makes a difference. Still, I'd get home for two weeks at Christmas, and coming back to England used to be difficult."
Scoring a goal every three games soon attracted attention and Bristol City paid £150,000 for him in 2004. However, with two more experienced strikers on the books, he only started 14 games, and was glad of a move to Doncaster Rovers the following season. That first year at Doncaster proved exciting as they beat Aston Villa and Manchester City en route to a Carling Cup quarter-final tie with Arsenal. They went down with honour, losing on penalties, and Heffernan had the satisfaction of converting his effort, to add to the goal he scored against Villa and the penalty against Man City.
The following season he won his first trophy, when Doncaster beat Bristol Rovers 3-2 in a thrilling JPT Trophy final in the Millennium Stadium. Once again he was on the mark, and Bristol boss Paul Trollope took note. "I've kept an eye on him ever since," he explained, "and when Doncaster started to play one up front, his chances became limited even though he was their top scorer last year, so I moved for him."
Heffernan is still puzzled by Doncaster's decision to make him available. "Last year I didn't get into the team until Christmas, started 19 games and scored 10 goals in the Championship and I thought I had done enough to prove myself. I still think I can do a job in the Championship."
For the moment, though, he's content to put his talents on display in League One and possibly help Bristol Rovers make a late charge for a place in the play-offs.