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Jeff: It's still a bit unreal


Jeff Hendrick celebrates after Ireland beat Bosnia on Monday to reach Euro 2016

Jeff Hendrick celebrates after Ireland beat Bosnia on Monday to reach Euro 2016

Ireland players (l-r) Wes Hoolahan, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and David Meyler celebrate qualification for Euro 2016 on Monday night

Ireland players (l-r) Wes Hoolahan, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and David Meyler celebrate qualification for Euro 2016 on Monday night


Jeff Hendrick celebrates after Ireland beat Bosnia on Monday to reach Euro 2016

From boy to man and all that happened in between.

Born after the early successes of the Charlton days, Jeff Hendrick's first memory of Ireland playing at a major finals was the 2002 World Cup finals.

Now, a decade-and-a-half later, old heroes like Shay Given and Robbie Keane are team-mates but this time, Hendrick is one of the driving forces in an Ireland side which has qualified for Euro 2016, a key figure as backed up by his stats (only two players, John O'Shea and Jon Walters, saw more action in the Euro 2016 campaign.

"I still remember 2002, I had just turned 10 when that World Cup was on, I had my face painted for the games, the whole lot," Hendrick told The Herald last night.

"With the time difference between here and Japan/Korea, I'd be turning up for school late because of the time that the games were on, the games were on at 8am so I might be late in to school, an hour late here or there.

"So it's a dream come true to get to a finals. Since I was a kid and watching Ireland, since I started playing football I have thought about something like this, all you want to do is play for your country, these tournaments come around every two years and as a kid you just wish you could play there. So to finally make it and qualify is still a bit unreal," added Hendrick, one of the proud products of Dublin nursery St Kevin's Boys (and not a rival club as we mistakenly reported in yesterday's Herald).

The reality of the achievement rapidly sunk in for Hendrick and his compatriots at club level. "I flew back to Derby and I was in at the club for recovery yesterday, I know some of the lads in the Irish squad had a day off and only had to go back today, but I'll be back training this morning as normal," he said, having been greeted by club manager Paul Clement, a man who retains a fondness for all things Irish from his time on the FAI coaching staff, with Don Givens' U21 squad a decade ago.

"The gaffer at Derby has an interest in us, he wants his players to do well no matter what and he made a point of congratulating us back at the club yesterday, but he has an added interest in Ireland from working with the FAI a few years ago, he has a bit of a link there so I'm sure he will be backing us in France."

For Hendrick, the Euro campaign has thrown up a few surprises: the fact that he established himself in the side (missing just two of the 12 games in qualification) and the fact that Ireland turned around a campaign that looked doomed to secure a ticket to France while a previously-cocky Scotland flopped.

"It's been unbelievable since Monday night. I just thought back four-five games ago, before we played Scotland in the summer and everyone had us written off - and now we're going to the Euros, it's unreal," he reflected.

"The tournament went well for me and I played in most of the games, I missed two of the matches with injury but I have really enjoyed it and I feel very grateful to the management for playing me, not just picking me but picking me in the big games as well, that was a big vote of confidence for me.

"This is where I always wanted to be, getting into the squad was the first big thing for me and now to be in the team for 10 games in the qualifying campaign is a great feeling."

Giovanni Trapattoni handed Hendrick his first cap (against Poland in 2013) but he had to wait until the home win over Gibraltar 13 months ago for his competitive debut.

Yet, taking an approach that the Ireland assistant manger will certainly approve of, Hendrick says he can't afford to simply bask in the glow - work to be done with club and country. "I have improved but I also feel there's more to come from me at international level. I have had a good game here but a bad game there, I can't say it's been good-good-good in the games, that's where I want to get to as I know I have to do well all the time," admits the 23-year-old.

"Maybe I played well in eight of the games but I need to be at my best in all the matches and I need to improve, I need to raise my standards.

"Hopefully I can keep performing for my club and make sure I am in the squad next summer. I'm not one for taking my foot off the gas, I'm not going to think that just because we have qualified I can ease off and stop working hard for Derby, I have big ambitions there as well, I want to get Derby promoted, I want to be in the Premier League with Derby and I hope to get us up this season.

"We don't have many Derby lads going to France. Obviously you have the four of us involved with the Irish team and one lad with Northern Ireland. We have the Scottish lads who missed out, luckily for us.

"The Scottish lads at Derby were fine but I know some of the Scotland players said last year they were heading for second place - and they finished fourth. I'm just delighted we're off to France."