Hunger, drive and a clear vision to reach big time
Derby's Jeff Hendrick targets Chelsea scalp as he stakes claim for Ireland call-up, writes Dion Fanning
Jeff Hendrick only ever had one answer. "Professional footballer," he'd say when they asked what he wanted to be. "Professional footballer," he'd respond when they told him it was a one-in-a-million shot and he should have a back-up plan. He had a back-up plan, he told them, and that was to be a professional footballer. There was nothing else.
He was more than just a kid with a crazy dream, although there was a bit of that as well. His ambition was based on talent and a dedication that began when he was a boy and hasn't left him. "I got that from my Da," he says. If Jeff Hendrick dreamed of being a footballer, he was in the right hands.
He was about 11, he thinks, when his father Billy would take him down to the field near their home in Artane, where they would run and practise. Billy had played football to a decent level and had five sons. He had encouraged all of them but the youngest, Jeffrey, was different.
"He said he never pushed them as much because he didn't see the potential that I had in them," his youngest son said last week. "He knew that I could do something with football so he wanted me to work hard and not waste the opportunity I had. It worked out thankfully."
Hendrick is sitting in Jury's Inn in Derby. His mother and father had returned to Dublin earlier in the day and his brother and his brother's girlfriend wait in reception as he walks off to conduct the interview. His parents and his aunt and uncle had visited for the new year. He liked having them over and it was a change too. The days have all been the same recently so having his parents around brought some variety.
In the summer, there was talk that Premier League clubs were interested in Hendrick and he had ended the previous season playing in Ireland's midfield against Spain. Then a mistimed challenge against Yeovil Town on August 24 led to a chipped bone and ligament damage to his ankle. It was December before he played again and since then he has played 90 minutes once. He thought he would get a chance over Christmas but, after he clashed heads with a team-mate in training, he had to wait until he passed his concussion tests to return.
So the days melted into each other during the long three months waiting to get back. On New Year's Day, he played the second half of Derby's home defeat to Wigan and he will hope to be involved today. Today is different as well. Chelsea are visiting Derby County. "You want to see how you do against the better players so it would be an interesting game to play in," he says.
These were the days he was thinking about as a boy when he would postpone playing football with his friends until the training and the practice with his father was over.
"As a young kid, my mates would be down in the field just messing around and he'd bring me down and make me run in front of them just to help me get fitter. He'd always be telling me to work on my touch and he just always wanted me to get better and better. When he comes over to these games, even if he's impressed with how we've played, he'll tell me the bad things I've done and it's a good thing because I wouldn't want him to tell me how great I played."
It has always been this way and there were times when he was younger that he might have found it frustrating. "But it made me a bit stronger and it did help me because in the next game I wanted to go out and show him that I can do the things that he thought I did wrong. I think it helped me out a lot. Obviously, everyone likes getting praise and don't get me wrong, he does praise me, but it's good to hear that and he tells me what I'm doing wrong. He loves football as well. It's what he talks to me about most of the time and it's great that he has an interest in what I'm doing."
When he was eight, Hendrick joined St Kevin's, a club with progressive ideas about developing young players. Soon he found himself in a side that would dominate Dublin football. Robbie Brady was a team-mate and when they weren't playing games, the squad would scatter to the UK for trials.
Hendrick says he went on trial to Manchester United at 12 and then it was Celtic who took him to Glasgow and then on to Qatar for the opening of the Aspire Academy. Pele and Maradona were opening the academy and his father still has a picture of Pele and Maradona surrounded by the Celtic academy players and trialists who were lending their support to the project too.
This was the life he wanted and this was the world he embraced. He never wanted anything else. Stephen Cluxton is a family friend who has been over to watch games and Hendrick played Gaelic football for his school, Parnell's, and was on underage Dublin panels.
"I think I was with Dublin for a year or two but it used to clash with football and they'd go mad when I wouldn't show up to games. I only played Gaelic with my mates, I liked playing it every now and again. I sort of played it with the school just to get out of class really. It's a good sport but I remember my teacher wanted me to give up soccer for Gaelic. He said I could play for Dublin but there was no chance, it was always going to be football."
So he played and went on trials. He lists the clubs he can remember visiting -- United, Celtic, Portsmouth, Fulham, West Brom, Derby, Forest and "a few others".
Many of the clubs told him he was too small and when he was 14 he was affected by Osgood-Schlatter syndrome, a condition that affects teenagers, particularly active ones, but that can cause severe pain.
There were times when he couldn't train and he remembers a couple of trials when the pain was so bad and he had to stop.
He doesn't remember when it went away but it did and soon he started to grow taller. More clubs were playing attention and he recalls another discomfort with some of the trials.
"Sometimes you enjoyed it, obviously if you went with one or two lads from Ireland as well, you could have a laugh about it. It's sort of difficult, you're going over and you're training with them but you're there to take their place. At some clubs, they wouldn't talk to you and it is difficult, sometimes, you're just sat there. You go and stay in the digs or the hotel and it's pretty boring at times, you're counting down the days until you get home."
Derby was different. He came over with some other Irish players and settled immediately. There was no homesickness. He could see how he was improving and that was what he wanted. "Every now and again, you talk to your mates and your family but you're living a different life now and you've just got to get used to it."
Last season, the development was most dramatic. He made his Ireland debut against Poland and within minutes he displayed his potential, setting up Ireland's second goal when he controlled the ball on his chest before his second touch was a beautifully guided left-foot ball into Wes Hoolahan's path.
Marco Tardelli always spoke highly of Hendrick and last summer, the old management team named him in the team that faced Spain in New York. He played against Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets but he wouldn't call it playing -- "I'd call it running after them."
At the time, he felt nothing but frustration but the eagerness to learn remained and he noticed how the Spanish midfielders moved the ball and shielded it from him.
There is now a new Irish management team to learn from. Hendrick was a Manchester United supporter as a kid and he hopes he can return to the Irish squad in the new year. The idea of being guided by Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill excites him.
Derby have a new manager too and impressing him will be Hendrick's first priority. Steve McClaren has guided the club into the play-off positions, winning 10 of his 15 matches in charge. Hendrick is competing for one of three midfield positions with, among others, Will Hughes, the young English player linked with a move to a Champions League club.
Hendrick has been six years at Derby County and he knows what playing in the Premier League would mean to the club. Today against Chelsea he may have an opportunity to learn a little more.
"We want to be at their level and if we got to the Premier League we'd be playing against them regularly. We respect them and what they've achieved but I wouldn't stand off them."
Today he hopes to learn a little more but Jeff Hendrick hopes English football will also learn a little more about him.