Enda Stevens: 'It's probably the best the League of Ireland has looked in a long time and it will only get better'

Tue, Mar 19 2019

Stevens is now a regular at international level after working his way up the leagues in England. Credit: Michael P Ryan (ETPhotos)

Enda Stevens has had plenty of highs and lows over the last number of years since signing his first professional contract with Airtricity League club UCD 11 years ago.

Released from UCD at the end of the 2008 season, and following a number of trials with UK clubs, the Dubliner was one of Jeff Kenna’s first signings as the manager of St Patrick’s Athletic.

That is when things started to settle down and happen for the defender, who is now a full senior international and competing for promotion to the Premier League with Sheffield United.

Over the next two years, the full back would become a regular fixture in the first team managers’ plans both at Pats and across the city with Shamrock Rovers.

Stevens picked up two league title wins while at Shamrock Rovers and, as a result of consistent performances for the club most notably during the 2011/12 Europa League, secured a deal with then-Premier League side Aston Villa.

His stay at Villa Park didn’t work out the way he had wanted and, following a spell of loan deals and just seven appearances with the club, the Dubliner moved on.

He signed a deal with Portsmouth, where he managed to settle in very quickly finding his first team opportunities coming thick and fast under the watchful eye of former Sligo manager Paul Cook.

With more chances came more consistency and naturally an increased confidence, and his second season saw Portsmouth promoted to League One as champions and Stevens named in the EFL team of the year.

Stevens sat in front of the assembled media at FAI HQ fresh from a huge result for his current club Sheffield United at the weekend.

A win over promotion rivals Leeds United has the Blades sitting second, in an automatic promotion place in the Championship with just eight games remaining.

With Stephen Ward announcing his international retirement, the Dubliner is well-placed to earn himself a place in Mick McCarthy’s first 11 on Saturday.

In recent years he has gained plenty of experience playing at both left back and, more recently, at wing back and says he is just as comfortable playing in either at this stage.

With Sheffield United team mates David McGoldrick and John Egan also part of the travelling party for Gibraltar, Stevens is hopeful they can take their club form and familiar relationships on the pitch onto the international stage.

“It’s not much different between the two,” said Stevens.

“I’ve played left back most of my career’m still only in my third season at wing back but I’ve played enough games in both positions at this stage to know what it takes to perform well in both.

“With wing back you are a bit higher up the pitch and the demand isn’t as much on you defensively as oppose to left back.

“We are racking up a few slots within the camp at this stage and it’s great because we’ve got a very good relationship at Sheffield United and hopefully we can now take that into this week with Ireland.

“I’m really enjoying my football at the moment and I’m playing in a very good team. We are not a team with the biggest names but we are a team where everyone is hungry to play, everyone knows their jobs and we all have good relationships both on the pitch and off the pitch.

“[McGoldrick] has been excellent. He plays the striker role differently to most players and it benefits a lot of players around him. He does very well with the ball in tight situations, he’s tricky, and he’s got a bit of everything.

“The hardest part of the game is to score goals and they are the ones under the spotlight most of all especially if they aren’t scoring.

“Hopefully against Gilbraltar, Dave and the other lads can score a few goals and get us off to a good start.”

Having laid down such solid foundations himself within the League of Ireland all those years ago, Stevens reflected on the form of Rovers midfielder Jack Byrne and what he can bring to the side if called upon.

Timing is everything and Byrne’s timing couldn’t have been much better last Friday night with McCarthy watching on closely from the stands.

The 22-year-old was man of the match on the night and topped it all off with a fantastic goal in the closing stages of the match.

“I think he just needed to go and play football,” said Stephens.

“He has just got to build himself up and play a lot of games, everyone knows the quality that he has and he has the hunger and the desire to do really well.

“Hopefully he might get himself back across and he has already been rewarded for his performances this season with this call up which is great.

“Jack is a personality, I think the bigger the occasion the better Jack will play, he thrives on trying to be the best player on the pitch. He’s got a swagger about him on the ball anytime he plays and he just loves it.

“I think the league itself is becoming a lot more professional in recent years. If you look at the setup for example at Rovers, they’ve got great underage structures and academies and it looks like there are great opportunities there for young players coming through.

“Dundalk and Cork have been so strong in the last number of years. It’s probably the best the league has looked in a long time and it will only continue to get better.”