Tuesday 16 October 2018

Irish call rewards Stevens for turning career around

Enda Stevens is hoping to make the most of his chance. Photo: Sportsfile
Enda Stevens is hoping to make the most of his chance. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In the summer of 2015, Enda Stevens was at a crossroads.

The rise from Shamrock Rovers to Aston Villa had been rapid and head-spinning.

But his free-transfer release after three and a half years and nine appearances didn't come as a surprise to anybody.

He had fallen out of favour and down the loan ladder without making any sort of impression.

There had been a wake-up call of sorts in October 2014 when Northampton boss Chris Wilder sent him back to Villa after a month.

Wilder sat the player down to explain why he wouldn't be extending his stay beyond a month.

Put simply, he wasn't fit enough to make an impact at any level. He didn't pull any trees up in a subsequent spell at Doncaster either.

"I went back thinking that I needed to get my act together," said Stevens yesterday, still wearing his training kit after completing his first training session with an Irish international squad.

The Doncaster stay preceded his official release from Villa. Paul Cook, who remembered Stevens from his days in the League of Ireland, picked up the phone and offered him the opportunity to come to Portsmouth.

The first proper meeting also involved a healthy dose of hard-hitting feedback.

"He sat me down and said I want you doing this and I don't want you doing this. I won't say any more," says the 27-year-old with half a grin.

"It was my last chance saloon, definitely.

"If it didn't work out there, I don't know where I would have been. He knew what I could do from the League of Ireland.

"It was never really in my mind to come home, but it did cross my mind because the phone wasn't ringing."

The decision to sign with Cook's side will go down as the turning point of his career. By his own admission, Stevens lost his focus after briefly breaking into the first team in the winter of 2012. He thought he'd cracked it.

"It was a massive step up and I just didn't appreciate it," explains the Dubliner.

"I didn't work as hard as I could to become an Aston Villa player. I wasn't good enough, I had to come away down the leagues to find that out. It got to my head a bit. You think you have made it and that but you are nowhere near making it.

Hunger

"When I went down to League Two I got that hunger back for the game. When you come away from it you see how much it's worth to you, how hard you have to work to get back to where you want to be."

Cook leaves egos at the door, and Stevens thrived in that environment.

Portsmouth stormed to promotion in his second season there and both manager and player received offers. Cook went to Wigan, while the out-of-contract Stevens accepted a three-year deal from a familiar source.

Wilder had moved up the ranks to become the manager of a Sheffield United that had just booked a ticket to the Championship.

He had always rated Stevens and wanted to work with him now that he seemed to have knuckled down.

Wilder had identified him as a left wing-back for his preferred system, and Stevens has been involved in all but one of their league games, with the Blades pushing for a play-off place.

"There is a lot more running at wing back (at United) so you need to be fit," he says. "When I went to Portsmouth, Paul Cook got me as fit as I could be and my football benefited from it.

"I was happy to work with Chris again. He's similar to Paul in that he's big into team bonding, a tight-knit dressing-room where everyone wants to work for each other."

Irish teams are often described in the same terms and the experimental group in Turkey have plenty in common, including promotion aims.

Stevens references the Preston gang, who are ahead of United on goal difference in eighth place and just two points off the coveted sixth spot.

Stevens always felt he needed to operate in that division to come into the Irish picture.

"I knew I had to get to that level (Championship) to have a chance of being called up," he said.

"Being honest, I wasn't really expecting it so soon. I am just delighted to be here, so hopefully I can do well and hang around."

Irish Independent

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