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Long way to the top

25 October 2019

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For each Premier League issue, UTB, United's official matchday programme, catches up with a member of the playing staff for an in-depth, exclusive interview.

Phil Jagielka, Luke Freeman, Oli McBurnie and Jack O'Connell have all featured in previous issues, but it was Enda Stevens who was placed in the spotlight ahead of the Arsenal issue.

The piece which was in excess of 2,000 words was the 'big interview' in the Gunners issue and Dean Henderson will be the main feature for our next game against Burnley.

At just £3.50, following a first price rise in 15 years, UTB will now be a 100-page publication for every Premier League fixture this season and it packed full of other intriguing content from the players and management, in addition to former favourites of previous eras.

United are currently selling subscriptions to UTB which will ensure a copy delivered to your door on the morning of every game and all can be ordered through our design partners Ignition Sports Media by clicking here.

 

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Long way to the top

Like many of his Blades team-mates, Enda Stevens endured his fair share of setbacks in his early career. UTB recently caught up with the Republic of Ireland international to discuss his early years in his homeland and his various European adventures...

"The best thing that could have happened to me," was how Enda Stevens described his early rejection into the professional ranks.
Not quite what you would expect to hear from someone trying to crack into one of the most competitive industries around, but the likeable Irishman always knew he wasn't ready to move across the water during his teenage years.

Now a regular in the Premier League, it is hard to imagine that into his twenties no-one in the English game had taken a chance on the Dublin-born ace, but Enda always believed he was better suited to a move later in life.

After coming over for trials aged 15 for the likes of Hull and Nottingham Forest, he knew deep down that he was unlikely to be able to handle such a life-changing move, with the rejections proving, in the long-term, to be a blessing in disguise.

Enda told UTB: "I grew up playing at Cherry Orchard who have a good reputation for developing players in Ireland. I had a good upbringing there but to make the grade I always knew you had to go to England.

"I had trials, but it just didn't really fit right for me at the time. I didn't do enough to make the move across, and if I did, I don't think I would have lasted. I just wasn't ready. In the end it was the best thing that could have happened to me if I am honest.

"I wouldn't have lasted in England as a young lad. I went to Forest and Hull and I thought I was close but, in the end, they said no. It was disappointing at the time but when I look back it was probably for the best."

It wasn't the end of the journey, as far as Enda was concerned it was just the start. After taking up a route which combined education with his football, he would eventually cut his teeth in his homeland, first by signing for UCD (University College Dublin), then moving to St. Patrick's Athletic in 2009.

He added: "A lot of players I knew went to England, but I stayed at home and signed up for a course in Cabra which is the Irish equivalent of a taste of academy football. The likes of Paddy Madden was there, so was Matt Doherty and you would kind of train every day, whilst also doing a college course.

"From there, I was taken on by UCD. I played a couple of games for them, they had a good youth system and a guy called Paul Summers was a really good coach, so that helped me. I was then signed at St. Patrick's by Jeff Kenna (ex-Blackburn and Ireland).

"What was the standard like? Everyone asks that but it is difficult to answer. The top teams, you just don't know where they could go. There are some good players in that league, and if look back there have been quite a few who have made a successful transition into England and Scotland."

During his time with St. Patrick's, Enda experienced his first taste of European football which would ultimately provide the turning point on his fledgling career.

In 2009, he was part of the side who enjoyed a strong run in the Europa League qualifiers as the Saints beat Valletta of Malta and Russian side Krylia Sovetov before being defeated in the third qualifier by Steaua Bucharest.

"It is what you are looking forward to the most when you play in the Irish leagues," Enda reveals.

"At St.Pat's we got quite a long way through the qualifiers at one stage and played Krylia Sovetov over in Russia. The experience of going to these places was something else, it was really enjoyable."

Enda's early taste of playing on the big stage was about to get better. His short stay with St. Patrick's ended when Shamrock Rovers, managed by Michael O'Neill, came calling in December 2009. In his first season with the Hoops, he won the league and they would repeat the feat in 2011, whilst also winning the Setanta Sports Cup.

All this success also resulted in Enda getting another opportunity to play in Europe. In 2010 after beating Israel's Bnei Yehuda in the first round of the Europa League qualifiers, the Hoops were then drawn against Italian giants Juventus. Enda played in the home leg which ended in a very respectable 2-0 defeat, with O'Neill's side going out 3-0 on aggregate.

It would get better in 2011. This time a stunning two leg win over Partizan Belgrade earned Rovers a place in the group stages for the first time, where they were drawn against the likes of Tottenham, PAOK and Rubin Kazan.

The appearances in these high-profile European games gave Enda the exposure he required to take his career to the next level, as several clubs in England started to sit up and take notice.

Enda explains: "When I signed for Shamrock Rovers, in the first year we got the dream tie of playing against Juventus. Having the opportunity to play Juve was fantastic.

"I remember Alessandro Del Piero was on the bench, and he was out warming up and a few of our lads were sprinting down the touchline to get the question regarding a shirt swap in nice and early! Funnily enough, for some reason he wanted to swap with our striker which was a nice gesture. After the game he was walking around with a Shamrock Rovers shirt on! I got Camoranesi's shirt, so that was decent - he was World Cup winner after all. It's at home with some others, I think my dad has them locked up somewhere.

"We then qualified the following year for the group stages after beating Partizan Belgrade and that really helped put me on the map. For me it was an opportunity to show what I could do, and hopefully then make the grade. The European football which we were given, that was the best platform to showcase what I could do. It was pretty much how I ended up getting my move."

It was after victory over Partizan Belgrade when Aston Villa made an offer and a deal was struck for January 2012.

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Enda signed a three-year deal with Alex McLeish's side, eventually making his Premier League debut in the November of the following season against Sunderland as a substitute. There was then the small matter of making his full Premier League debut against Manchester United in the next game.

"It was playing in Europe which put me out there," Enda continues.
"I was getting watched, and there were a few teams coming in for me. I got the phone call a few days after we played Partizan Belgrade to tell me that Villa had made an offer. I did feel like I was getting closer to a move to England, but I never really expected someone like a Villa to come in. It took me by surprise, the excitement kicked in and I didn't have time for it to sink in because it happened on deadline day, so the deal was done very quickly.

"I came on against Sunderland away for my debut. It was a baptism of fire because I had been waiting for so long for the opportunity to arrive, but being on the bench at Sunderland, two left-backs got injured during the game, so I was thrown on - I didn't expect it. We won 1-0, and the following week I started against Manchester United.

"The thing is with football; it is crazy sometimes. The Man Utd game, adrenaline alone would get you over the line. I thought I did well in the game but unfortunately, we lost 3-2. I got off to a good start, we played Man Utd, Man City and then Arsenal, and I did well. We then played Reading at home, I picked up a knock but by the time I came back from injury I just never maintained that level of performance required to play in the Premier League.

"There wasn't much to it, it was a case, more or less, of just throwing me out there and seeing if I could handle it. It doesn't sound that helpful, but it is probably the best way of learning."

The early games would prove to be the high point of Enda's time at Villa Park. As other players returned from injury and suspension, he was pushed down the pecking order. When opportunities did arrive, by his own admission, he didn't do enough to take them.

What would follow would be a run of loan moves between 2013 and 2015 to the likes of Notts County, Doncaster Rovers (twice) and Northampton Town as the Irishman looked for the game time required to keep his career moving.

A permanent move away was on the cards, and in Paul Cook, then manager of Portsmouth, he found someone who knew how to get the best out of his talents.

Cook began his managerial career in Ireland with Sligo, and knew all about Enda's ability, wasting no time in taking him to Fratton Park on a permanent basis.

"When I came back from the injury at Villa for some reason, I couldn't match my early standards," he admits.

"It was a knock back in terms of confidence. It was my last chance in many ways, but I was lucky I met the right person at the right time in Paul Cook. He got me playing a really good style of football, probably a better style to what I was playing at Villa. He coached me, he got me as fit as possible and I was playing the kind of football I wanted to be playing.

"He was at Sligo so he would have known me from then. They would have been pushing us for the league when I was with Shamrock. We'd had some good battles, we played them in a cup final so he would have known a lot about me."

It was a match made in heaven as Pompey won promotion in 2017 and Enda was named in the PFA League Two Team of the Year.

Enda continues: "Portsmouth were still getting 18,000 for their home games. It was a great place to play. They were in the fourth tier, but they were still a big club and it was always a great atmosphere. It is a brilliant club and one that will again be on the up. We won the league in my second season on the last day and the celebrations were class."

Enda, like many of his current team-mates, was now benefitting from going out and playing in the lower leagues.

He didn't get the opportunity to star for Pompey in League One, as the Blades came calling, with Enda's time at Bramall Lane under Chris Wilder encapsulating two promotions which has now resulted in the wing-back impressing during the opening months of the Premier League season.

Looking back on his, and United's rise, Enda admits the long road was worth it.

"It has been a journey that's for sure," he said.

"It has been good though, and hopefully there is more to come here. You struggle to see it when your down in League One, but after we did so well the first year, and with the size of the club, in the second year I could sense that we were capable of going one better and getting out of The Championship.

"We had the aim of being in the play-offs as a minimum last season. Once the season went on though, we could see promotion within our sights we knew we had to grab it. These kind of opportunities don't come around too often. We had the ability and the confidence to do that. I am loving the opportunity of playing in the Premier League again."

Enda also has his sights on success on the international scene. Now a regular for Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland, there is a real chance of his country being involved in Euro 2020. There is a long way to go yet, but Enda is adamant playing for your country is still the pinnacle for a player, as he looks ahead following the latest round of qualifiers.
He added: "There is no prouder moment than to represent your country and to wear the colours. To play in front of your own countrymen in the Aviva Stadium is something really special. Hopefully we can be involved in some big games in the coming months. The aim is to try and get to a major championship. It is what you want, it is what you grow up watching on TV and it is what everyone remembers. You see the whole country come together in support, and hopefully that can be us."


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