Sunday 22 September 2019

Hendrick hits back at critics who claim he doesn't try hard enough

Jeff Hendrick leads from the front during training in Abbotstown ahead of tomorrow’s clash against Switzerland. Photo: Sportsfile
Jeff Hendrick leads from the front during training in Abbotstown ahead of tomorrow’s clash against Switzerland. Photo: Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

This week he will join the band of players who have been picked to play for their country 50 times. Next week, his stint of national service over, he will return to his base in England, to his Premier League lifestyle.

Looking at the career of Jeff Hendrick right now, picking holes could be seen as nitpicking, especially as only a handful of central midfielders (among them the very best like Roy Keane, John Giles and Ronnie Whelan) have reached the 50-cap mark.

And yet the problem for Hendrick, as he gears up to face Switzerland tomorrow night, is that his international career reached such a peak on the fields of France in 2016 that it's been a struggle to reach that level again.

Hendrick has had other struggles too, at club level. Burnley have played four Premier League games this season but he has played just four minutes. He's out of contract at the end of this season and so far, in public at least, there has been no chat about extending his stay at the club.

Hendrick and Robbie Brady were the poster boys of the Irish side after they reached the last 16 of the European Championships in France but since then, neither man has hit those heights.

Injuries The lads from St Kevin's Boys were dragged down by the gloom of the late Martin O'Neill era as much as anyone else in the squad and Brady has been dogged by injuries for 18 months now, not fit enough to merit a place in the Irish squad this week.

Even Mick McCarthy's predecessor admitted that matching up to 2016 was a struggle for Hendrick.

"He had reached a very high performance level in the Euros and the expectations on himself and Robbie Brady and the likes of Seamus Coleman did become very high," O'Neill said last year.

"It became high with all of us. I think it became high within himself too. Sometimes, whatever you do, you don't reach that sort of level."

Three years on, we're still waiting for Hendrick to move up towards greatness, though there is the real prospect of a rebirth under McCarthy.

The people around Hendrick would feel that he has been picked on for his struggle to match those 2016 levels, but the player himself admits that while it has been a battle to get back to those highs, it's not for the lack of effort.

"The criticism is fine - everyone is going to criticise you. If I am playing out of position, they can criticise me for not keeping the ball or not doing the things I should do as a footballer," he said yesterday.

"But the things people are saying - I'm not trying and I'm not working hard, that was tough, because I give everything when I put the green jersey on.

"I work hard, I get the running stats from every game, and me and James McClean are trying to beat each other, to see who's running more. I'm never going to post that online - you are giving people a reaction then.

"We are all just trying to do our best for the country and if we couldn't reach the highs of the Euros we were certainly trying to get there. It just didn't happen sometimes," Hendrick added.

"The Euros was such a high for everyone and the performance levels, I think, were quite high from the whole squad. A few of the lads then left the squad after that and we had some injuries. So it was a completely new team and I don't think I saw that being mentioned many times."

One black mark against Hendrick is his record of goals scored in the Ireland shirt, two goals in 49 games. That poor return is nothing new - failure to find the net from midfield has dogged the national team for almost two decades.

Players like Aiden McGeady (failed to score in his first 40 internationals) and Glenn Whelan (an average of one goal every 43 games for Ireland) were unable to chip in the way midfielders like Roy Keane had done.

"Whether I'm scoring or assisting, that's what I enjoy in football, and I haven't scored enough. Obviously I got the goal against Serbia away and I thought, right, there's my chance to kick on and try to get some more goals. But it was tough," said Hendrick.

Mindset In his defence, a lot of his time in the green jersey, especially under Martin O'Neill, was spent with not so much a defensive mindset but a lack of clarity about his role. He feels he was played out of position at times, which took away from his concentration.

"I'd say for the 10 games from 30 caps on, I was out of position. I was playing on the right, I was nearly up top for a few games.

"For me, I was trying to adapt and do well for the team in that position," he said.

"I do know football but it wasn't natural for me to play in those positions. But in the last few games, I think you can see that I'm playing in my position."

The bar was set high but, at 27, McCarthy may be the coach to coax Hendrick back to where he was.

Irish Independent

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