Tuesday 20 August 2019

Stevens ready to give his second bite at Premier League cherry the full monty

Enda Stevens in action for Sheffield United in a pre-season friendly against Real Betis and he will be part of a strong Irish contingent with the Blades this season. Photo: Getty
Enda Stevens in action for Sheffield United in a pre-season friendly against Real Betis and he will be part of a strong Irish contingent with the Blades this season. Photo: Getty

David Sneyd

The phone rings and Enda Stevens answers. This counts as passing the first test of whether becoming a Premier League player has changed him.

"Not going to happen," he says.

An ideal start to the interview, one that hasn't required the prior approval of Sheffield United's media department, the player's agent, or is tied in as part of a commercial engagement.

Stevens is not talking in order to promote a brand or because he's getting paid to flog a product. He's just happy to pick up the phone and chat.

Like the old days.

"What's the story?" he asks.

The 29-year-old is relaxing at the home he shares in Sheffield with his girlfriend Sinéad, their three-month-old daughter Bella Elaine, and their dog Shiloh.

He chats about the joys of fatherhood, how Sheffield is a city which now feels as close to home as possible and why there is no place for fear in the United dressing room this season.

If he is nervous, he is doing a good job of hiding it. "All the preparation is done, the hard work of pre-season is behind us and we're ready, but we don't really know what we're going into," Stevens accepts. "Not until that first ball is kicked and we're in it for real will we find out. That's part of the excitement."

The Dubliner is not long home from a post-training pot of tea, slice of cake and a natter with team-mates John Egan and Callum Robinson. The latter has joined the 'coffee club' as Stevens describes it since his £7 million move from Preston North End last month.

The three Ireland internationals would have been joined by another, but David McGoldrick was heading home on his regular commute to his family in Nottingham.

"I had to get Egs (Egan) to pay, the Cork man can be tight enough so it's no harm getting the knot out of his wallet," Stevens laughs.

That togetherness, as well as the high-tempo, all-action football, is one of the reasons United have been so successful under manager Chris Wilder.

Sheffield is the steel city. Wednesday may be the club which resonates with most outsiders but it is United that have proven to be far more adept at marrying the locals' desire for substance with a style that also excites. And deliver results.

"Of course, we know it will be tough," Stevens continues. "It's the biggest league in the world, we know in a sense what's coming and that there will be tough days, but we're quietly confident that we can impose ourselves on the league and do well. We don't know how well but, deep down, we believe in ourselves that we can perform at this level.

"It is a mental game," he feels. "We have to remember that. We deserve to be here. We have to play and perform well and see where it takes us."

Not since Robert Carlyle and 'The Full Monty' lads got their kit off has Sheffield been so enamoured with a well-worked formation that are happy to let loose.

Three centre-backs with the ones on the outside overlapping? Wing-backs with licence to support and attacking midfielders bombing into the box? This is something you expect in the Bernabeu, not Bramall Lane.

"We know what we are capable of," Stevens adds. "We know we will have to adapt and there will be times when it will change but the manager won't let us forget what we can do, too."

Wilder, 51, may be a home-town boy done good - he has a club crest tattoo - but his ability to think outside the box belies a CV which reads as follows: Alfreton Town, Halifax Town, Oxford United and Northampton Town.

Demands

"He wants every single one of us to work hard for him," Stevens explains. "He demands so much of us, he wants every one of us to achieve as much as we can and he makes us believe we are capable of being successful in the Premier League. He's not here for a tourist ride, he wants to be a success."

United's upturn in fortunes since Wilder took charge ahead of the 2016/'17 season has been incredible. They've gone from 11th in League One to Premier League new boys in the space of three seasons. Stevens was part of the side which secured promotion last term, having impressed with Portsmouth in League Two and then in the third tier.

Stevens' own story of Premier League redemption continues away to Bournemouth today. It may be his eighth top-flight appearance in England, but the fact that number seven came in January 2013 - a 1-0 home defeat to Southampton with Aston Villa - provides an indication of the journey he has taken to this point.

Loans at Notts County, Doncaster Rovers (twice) and Northampton Town were fruitless and he was released from Villa Park in 2015. His attitude, by his own admission, stank.

Then he met Paul Cook, a manager who re-energised him and instilled a work ethic that brought the best out of him. But he wasn't the only one.

"There are not many people you will stay in touch with in this game, but Michael Doyle is one of the few. I speak to him nearly every day of the week," Stevens says of his fellow Dubliner, the veteran 38-year-old midfielder who is still going strong and was captain at Pompey during Stevens' time there.

"I feel very lucky that our paths crossed when they did. He gives good advice and is someone to listen to because you know you can trust him. That's really important. It crucial to have those people around you. It's easy to get mixed up in the wrong crowd. You want to have people who have your best interests at heart."

Tough love was the order of the day as Doyle, now with Notts County, takes up the story. "I remember one of my first conversations with him. We were only talking about this again the other day, I told him, 'You ain't going to like me on this pitch, but it's not personal. I could be wrong a lot of the time but just take it'.

"Then the game started and he was like, 'What the f**k is going on here?' But that was just me, I wanted to push people, help them, and he responded to that. Enda had the determination to make the best possible career for himself."

Having forced his way into the left-back spot in Mick McCarthy's Ireland team, now the Premier League beckons.

"I wouldn't have expected the chance to come back around as it has," Stevens admits. "I needed to get my head around it, we have a three-month-old now so that takes up a fair bit of your thoughts. We're confident we can set our own tone and show what we can do.

"We don't want this to be the end of the story for us, this isn't the end. Yeah, it's the Premier League and there will be pressure, but you have to enjoy it, too. You can't be afraid of these challenges."

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