Tuesday 21 August 2018

Hendrick's continued evolution facing acid test at Old Trafford

Jeff Hendrick will be hoping to help Burnley add to Manchester United’s problems at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty
Jeff Hendrick will be hoping to help Burnley add to Manchester United’s problems at Old Trafford. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Fifteen years ago on St Stephen's Day, Ireland were without a manager but they had no shortage of Premier League players.

A month before Brian Kerr's appointment, there were plenty of available top flight performers to keep tabs on. After a turbulent year, Roy Keane made a Christmas comeback, a first start in four months in a Manchester United defeat at Middlesbrough.

Keane is on the other side of the fence now, part of a management team that has remained in situ despite a disappointing end to their World Cup campaign. The problem, they can reasonably argue, is the dearth of Premier League players they can go and watch as part of their brief.

During the course of a full round of December 26 fixtures in 2002, a total of 21 Irishmen were involved and only one was involved as a substitute.

Active

In addition to Keane, John O'Shea, Steve Finnan, Stephen Carr, Robbie Keane, Dean Kiely, Phil Babb, Kevin Kilbane, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Richard Dunne, Steve Staunton, Mark Kinsella, Damien Duff, Rory Delap, Shay Given, Andy O'Brien, Jeff Kenna, Kenny Cunningham, Clinton Morrison and Lee Carsley were all active.

Today, the field is much smaller. If Ireland number two Keane wants certainty about seeing one of his countrymen in the flesh then the Premier League option is back at Old Trafford - but he will be there to watch Burnley with Jeff Hendrick sure to start and Kevin Long likely to continue in place of suspended James Tarkowski provided he is forgiven for conceding a penalty last Saturday.

The injured Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady would have been involved if available, while Jon Walters is on the comeback trail.

The options elsewhere are limited. Shane Long, Harry Arter, James McClean and Declan Rice could feature for their employers depending on management decisions.

Injuries might bring James McCarthy closer to Everton involvement.

Shane Duffy, who returns from a ban for Brighton, is the only other member of O'Neill's squad who will wake this morning safe in the knowledge he will be used. Slim pickings, indeed.

Hendrick's display will be of most interest to Keane.

On paper, he sounds exactly like the type of player that Ireland should be excited about.

He's 25 and a regular central midfielder with a club that is seventh at the midway point of the campaign. On top of that, he's versatile enough to play a number of roles, although Sean Dyche has tended to use him in a more advanced position.

The problem is that the breakthrough star of Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign was subdued during the aborted World Cup mission - especially when deployed in that number 10 role.

He has been honest enough to admit when some of his own performances have been below par.

And part of the Irish expectation comes from the absence of alternatives with his profile. It can be overlooked that he's a relative newcomer at the highest level. Before the Euros in France, he had only played international football although his Irish debut came in 2013 as a 21-year-old.

This afternoon's game will be only his 49th Premier League appearance, a reminder that he is still quite inexperienced in this company.

For contrast, consider the fact that his international colleague McCarthy - who has only just turned 27 - has made 218 Premier outings.

In other words, he's still developing, but it may well be that his upbringing in the second tier has readied Hendrick for the slight change of pace in elite company.

Dyche's charges have been a revelation and the explanation that has been offered is the profile of a dressing room that largely consists of players who were raised in Britain and Ireland.

Ward recently told the Irish Independent that the work ethic of the group comes from the graft of a 46-game Championship campaign which was all that Hendrick knew until last term.

Specific

"England is a very specific market," said Ward. "And it's a challenge to come out from a league like the Championship with that Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday schedule.

"But that means we have a dressing room with some big characters who have worked really hard to get to where they are."

Hendrick may have that aptitude, yet he's got good technique too, as evidenced in his goals against Everton and Newcastle where he timed his runs well.

In the green shirt, he has struggled to get into the right positions with his solitary Irish goal a fortuitous strike in Serbia.

Management might be frustrated by the contrast between club and country performances, and Hendrick must ultimately take responsibility for that, but Dyche has found a formula which has suited the £10m buy - he seems more aware of his tactical brief in claret and blue.

If Keane is watching today, that should provide him with food for thought.

Irish Independent

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