Enda Stevens - I was to blame for my Premier League downfall but I want a second chance
He dared to believe that the bright lights of the Premier League were destined to glare down on him when he joined Aston Villa, but it didn’t take long for Enda Stevens to face up to a grim reality.
The autumn of 2011 saw paths laced with gold opening up for this ambitious Dubliner, as he played for Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League group stages and confirmed his status as one of the outstanding performers in Michael O’Neill’s side.
Playing against Tottenham at White Hart Lane gave the 22-year-old full-back a taste of what was to come as he was snapped up by Villa and made the trip to the promised land of the English Premier League.
Stevens believed he was equipped to leap from the League of Ireland to the most lucrative league in world football in one giant stride too and yet his confidence was shattered in an instant.
In an exclusive interview, the defender now knocking on the door of a Premier League return with Championship high-fliers Sheffield United has opened up on why he has taken five years to finally feel he is ready to compete at the top level of the English game.
“It was a big deal back for me get to a Premier League club,” begins Stevens. “This is what I dreamt of, something I always wanted and I was in awe of the whole thing when I went over to England and got a chance to live it.
“Then I went over and it didn’t take long for me to realise there was still so far to go and there was so much more to improve on if I was going to make it.
“Playing for Rovers in the Europa League gave me the belief that I was ready to play in the Premier League, but I was wrong.
“I just wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t appreciate how tough it would be at all.
“It’s a totally different level and I don’t mean this in any way to be disrespectful to the League of Ireland, but it was a different world.
“Everything was a massive, massive step up in terms of the professionalism, athleticism, the fitness levels required the dedication needed to make it over here.
“I struggled to cope with it all if I am being honest, a big part of the reason why I didn’t make it at Villa was my fault.”
The honesty Stevens offers up in his reflections on five eventful years in English football suggests he has matured during a professional and emotional journey that has opened his eyes to what is required to make it to the top of the game.
Setbacks, snubs and confidence shattering rejections became Enda’s story at Villa after he made a full Premier League debut against mighty Manchester United in November 2012, but he admits the primary reason for his failure was self-inflicted.
“Looking back now, I don’t feel I worked hard enough to make it at Villa,” he concedes.
“I got wrapped up in the idea I was a Premier League footballer. I had made it. That was my downfall.
“I don’t blame any manager or the club, I just don’t think I was good enough to play in the Premier League.
“It was a big wake up call. Then I found myself going on loan to Doncaster and Northampton and you realise that English football it not all glitz and glamour.
“They don’t have the fancy training grounds and the lavish lifestyle and I had a reality check. I didn’t make it at Villa and had to start again.”
Stevens convinced himself that a move to Portsmouth in the summer of 2015 represented a final chance for him to make his mark in English football, as he dropped down to the bottom tier of the Football League in a bid to kick-start his career.
“Portsmouth was a last chance saloon for me. If it didn’t work there, I had nowhere else to go,” he states.
“If I couldn’t make it in League Two, I saw myself dropping out of the English game altogether and that pressure might have been good for me as it worked out so well.
“It may have been the first time I felt settled since I came over from Ireland. I moved down to Portsmouth, we had a good team and I felt wanted. I knew that if I had a bad game, I wouldn’t be straight out of the team and that benefitted me. I got as fit as I have ever been and kicked on from there.
“I earned my move to Sheffield United last summer and now I find myself in a team pushing for promotion to the Premier League and I feel part of a club moving forward.
“I have come to the club on the back of the big success they had in League One and I had to try and fit in and get into a winning team and it has gone well for me so far.
“There is such a buzz around the club at the moment and we are all on the same page. The fans, the players, the manager are all pushing in the same direction and it’s great to be a part of.
“Where I am now, I put it down to hard work. If you dedicate yourself to this job, things can happen for you.
“I have been through phases when you miss home and wonder if it will ever work out. When you are left behind and the lads play their games on a Saturday, you find yourself in a flat on your own and wonder why you are bothering, but you have to dedicate yourself to this completely or it you will come up short.”
This is a tale all Irish kids hoping to hit the big time in England can learn from, with the form this dynamic full-back is showing at Sheffield United likely to propel him towards a senior Ireland call-up and, potentially, a return to the Premier League.
Stevens is living the dream in English football at last…after half a decade of trying.
Born: July 9th 1990 in Dublin
• After playing for UCD and St Patrick’s Athletic, he joined Shamrock Rovers in 2010.
• Stevens played a key role in Rovers domestic title success and their run to the group stages of the Europa League
• Joined Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa in January 2012 and played seven Premier League games before embarking on loan spells with Notts County, Northampton and Doncaster.
• A move to Portsmouth in the summer of 2015 sparked his career and he was a League Two title winning with Pompey last season.
• Signs for newly promoted Championship side Sheffield United last summer and has established himself in their team as they push for promotion to the Premier League.