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'From the very first day he looked out for me' - McEneff hails Hoops boss Bradley after move to Hearts

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Shamrock Rovers' Aaron McEneff in action against Keith Buckley of Bohemians. Photo: Sportsfile

Shamrock Rovers' Aaron McEneff in action against Keith Buckley of Bohemians. Photo: Sportsfile

Shamrock Rovers' Aaron McEneff in action against Keith Buckley of Bohemians. Photo: Sportsfile

After two years in Tallaght that changed the course of his career, the only sadness Aaron McEneff feels about his time at Shamrock Rovers is that there was no proper chance to say goodbye.

One week he was in with his Rovers team-mates beginning gym work ahead of the 2021 campaign, the next he was in a hotel room in Edinburgh preparing to start life as a Hearts player.

For all that he was aware of persistent interest in the background, there was still a sense of shock about the call from his agent to pack his bags over the weekend because the clubs had agreed a deal.

With cash strapped Covid times limiting the paying of transfer fees, the 25-year-old wondered if speculation would evaporate but Hearts were clearly fixated to get their man with their determination persuasive.

It’s all happened very quickly. Elite sports people are allowed to travel for work reasons so the Gardai manning Dublin Airport on Monday morning knew about McEneff’s deal before a good number of his Rovers pals.

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Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley at the launch of Bank of Ireland as Associate Sponsors of the League of Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley at the launch of Bank of Ireland as Associate Sponsors of the League of Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Shamrock Rovers manager Stephen Bradley at the launch of Bank of Ireland as Associate Sponsors of the League of Ireland. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"I trained in the gym on the Friday and we had Saturday and Sunday off,” said McEneff.

"I got the shout on the Sunday to get on a flight. I didn’t see any of the lads, I just texted when it all went through.

"It was a bit of blow not to be able to see them face to face because we had a special group and we all got on really well but I suppose that’s football."

That was similar to the sentiment expressed by his old boss Stephen Bradley earlier in the day, with the Rovers supremo pragmatic about the loss of another key component of their league winning midfield after Jack Byrne’s Cypriot exit.

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He viewed McEneff as another international in waiting and accepts that those players tend to depart the League of Ireland eventually.

"We have to understand the country and the league we are in," said Bradley, "If you are successful people will come and try to take what you have."

Yet whatever happens from here for McEneff, he will always be thankful to Bradley.

Speak to people around Rovers and they would say that the pair really did have a strong relationship, with Bradley making a strong push to sign McEneff two winters ago and then overseeing an improvement in his game that was needed.

"I know words like this get thrown around quite lightly but the relationship I have with the gaffer is 100pc genuine," continues the player.

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Aaron McEneff during an Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aaron McEneff during an Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aaron McEneff during an Ireland training session at the FAI National Training Centre in Abbotstown, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

"Before I signed for Rovers, I came down three times to meet the staff and he put us up in hotels, he brought my mum and dad out for a meal and from the very first day he looked out for me.

"Off the pitch, he always asked after how I was doing and on the pitch he’s developed me and brought me from one level to another.

"He’s taught me parts of the game I had to work on and instilled a work ethic into a game that made me more of an all rounder than I had been at Derry. I have to give him massive credit."

The former Spurs trainee admits that Bradley – formerly of Arsenal – perhaps knew how to tap into the mind of a player who wasn’t delivering on his full potential at Derry where he was viewed as talented if somewhat inconsistent, a strong attacker that had weaknesses elsewhere in the game.

Bradley was good for Jack Byrne at Rovers too and McEneff agrees that his understanding of what it was like to come home from English disappointment might have helped.

"He would understand the background of the likes of myself and Jack. He kinda would have got to know our families quite well and understand us as people more than players. I think he was really good in that sense in terms of man management.

"The other aspect is being a good manager and a good coach in terms of the football stuff and knowing how to get the best out of you. He's built a serious squad there and all I can say is that I'm grateful for everything."

McEneff's energetic performances at Rovers underpin his new reputation as a solid box to box midfielder with an eye for goal.

Hearts' sporting director Joe Savage had traced McEneff back to his Derry days yet his improvement was obvious and the clearest reflection of that came when Stephen Kenny turned to him during his Covid crisis in November.

That short training experience further fuelled his desire to test himself at a higher level.

Kenny sent a text to McEneff earlier this week to congratulate him on his move and say he would be watching him. His scout Ruaidhri Higgins called too.

"It (November) filled me with a lot of confidence," he says, "When I went into training there it gave me a gauge of where I'm at and I thought I did quite well. It's made me more hungry to get to that level and compete at the top of the game. It would be my dream to play for my country."

There was some commentary about his choice of club with casual observers unaware Hearts had dropped to the second tier.

They are 12 points clear at the top of the table albeit with two games more played than their closest pursuers yet all the signs are pointing to a revival and the willingness to splash out reflected that.

McEneff's fiancée Ellen spent four years in university in Edinburgh and he recalls one visit to Tynecastle so he already had a feel for what a big deal Hearts are in their locality. Still, he did find himself having a look at some old matches on YouTube when he heard the deal was happening just to get a flavour of what the atmosphere might be whenever fans return.

"I didn't need to do that to know that Hearts were one of the biggest clubs in Scotland," he asserts.

"But since I've come in this week, you can tell by going down to the stadium or being in around the training ground, you can see how big a club it is by how it operates. It's really exciting."

He also had a couple of meetings with his new boss, Robbie Neilson, to find out where he sits into his plans and he liked what he heard.

McEneff is coming off the back of almost a two month break so he's a small bit behind his colleagues yet he's in contention for Friday night's trip to Ayr.

With a baby on the way in May, he was already facing into a life changing year. It's all kicked off sooner than he expected.


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