Long jour­ney takes a turn for Steven

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker:

Had it not been de­val­ued by re­al­ity tele­vi­sion, Enda Stevens would be en­ti­tled to use the word “jour­ney”’ as he re­flects on his cir­cuitous, some­times dif­fi­cult ca­reer.

He does not. At Sh­effield United’s train­ing ground high on one of the city’s seven hills Stevens in­stead re­peated two phrases: “I didn’t war­rant that” and “You’ve to rein­vent your­self”.

Stevens is 27: he has played for three clubs in the League of Ire­land, six in Eng­land. He has played in all four di­vi­sions in Eng­land, from As­ton Villa in the Premier League to Portsmouth in League Two. He has en­dured rel­e­ga­tion and en­joyed pro­mo­tion. He has known a high of mak­ing a full Villa de­but against Manch­ester United – Van Per­sie, Rooney, Sc­holes – to a low, be­ing “on the floor” at Northamp­ton Town.

And all this set against an early re­jec­tion by Hull City and a fam­ily tragedy that oc­curred within hours of Stevens sign­ing for Villa.

It was at the end of the Au­gust 2011 trans­fer window when Stevens’s trans­fer from Sham­rock Rovers was com­pleted.

“It was com­ing up to dead­line day in that Au­gust and I got a call to say As­ton Villa were in­ter­ested,” he says. “I’d to get my stuff to­gether quickly and fly over for a med­i­cal.”

The surge – emo­tional and phys­i­cal – of join­ing a Premier League club was as we would ex­pect. Then Stevens was called by his fa­ther Gerry. Stevens’s older sis­ter Elaine was se­ri­ously ill.

“From up here to down there,” Stevens says. “Yeah, it was tough. I re­ceived a phone call from me Da, rushed to the hos­pi­tal, but it wasn’t to be.

“Elaine had Friedriech’s Ataxia. It’s a dis­ease that at­tacks the ner­vous sys­tem. She was 12 I think when she lost the feel­ing in her legs, I was eight. She was a nor­mal kid just grow­ing up and she started to lose her bal­ance. It af­fected her legs, then her arms, it at­tacked her co-or­di­na­tion, her eyes, her breath­ing and then the whole body shuts down in the end.

“I took a break from Rovers, for about a week I think. I sat down with the fam­ily. It was a tragedy and it was hor­ri­ble but, like, I needed to do some­thing, you know? We were left dev­as­tated.

“Then I played against St Pat’s. Foot­ball was the only way I was go­ing to get over it.

“It stays with you. One thing that worked out was that I wasn’t go­ing to Villa un­til the Jan­uary, so I still had a few months at home with the fam­ily.”

Com­ing to­gether

That Septem­ber of 2011 will never leave the Stevens fam­ily but amid the deso­la­tion, Enda says, “some other things came to­gether”.

“I have an­other sis­ter, Sinead. At the time Elaine passed away, I signed for Villa and Sinead got a job.”

Then he adds: “And Dublin won the All-Ire­land.”

He is not flip­pant, sport clearly helped, even as a dis­trac­tion. Fa­ther Gerry and Enda were both keen Gaelic foot­ballers and Enda con­tin­ued to play – qui­etly – once he had moved from UCD to St Pa­trick’s Ath­letic in 2009 when he was 18.

“My Da played soc­cer as a kid, I think as far as Home Farm. Then he went into the Gaelic and hurl­ing.

“I played both as well un­til I was 16. Even when I was play­ing for Pat’s I was sneak­ing around play­ing Gaelic for St. James Gaels on a Wed­nes­day – my day off. Wed­nes­day nights down the Iveagh Grounds.

“I loved it, al­ways been a big part of my fam­ily, we’d all get to­gether on a Sun­day for Dublin games.”

From St Pat’s Stevens moved to join Michael O’Neill at Sham­rock Rovers. Stevens was re­ceiv­ing recog­ni­tion from his con­tem­po­raries – voted Ir­ish Young Player of the Year in 2011 – and from the FAI there were three Un­der-21 caps.

But once he landed at Villa, Stevens re­alised what lay ahead, at least some of the time.

“It was a big step up, a bit scary,” he says. “You grow up watch­ing these peo­ple on TV and you never pic­ture your­self there. But it was good, I was ex­cited, it helped put it [Elaine’s pass­ing] to the back of your head.”

That was Jan­uary 2012. By the time of his Villa de­but 11 months later, the man­ager who signed Stevens, Alex McLeish, had been re­placed by Paul Lam­bert. Stevens’ full de­but was at home against Robin van Per­sie and co –“and I’m a Man United fan”.

Stevens stayed in for a few weeks and says: “For that month, it was one of the best ex­pe­ri­ences. I felt a Premier League player, oh yeah, I def­i­nitely did. You get sucked into it.”

But it did not last and, five years on, Stevens is can­did and self-crit­i­cal.

“I didn’t work my hard­est to be an As­ton Villa foot­baller. I just got caught up in it all, it’s what can hap­pen to you, the pub­lic­ity and pro­file. You thought you’d made it.”

At the start of the next sea­son Stevens found him­self on loan at Notts County in League One and says: “I didn’t re­ally war­rant a Cham­pi­onship club.”

Then one did come in for him, Don­caster Rovers: “We strug­gled and ended up be­ing rel­e­gated. Later I re­joined them in League One.

“I was still con­trac­tu­ally an As­ton Villa player but I was never go­ing to play. I was train­ing with the re­serves. It was called the Bomb Squad, I was with Ste­vie Ire­land and oth­ers wait­ing by the phone. We were be­ing bombed out.”


The phone was not hot. Then in Oc­to­ber 2014, League Two Northamp­ton Town called.

“I was on the floor,” Stevens says. “It was prob­a­bly the low­est I’d been since I’d been in Eng­land. I’d to go there and you’ve kind of got to rein­vent your­self and prove your­self again.”

Stevens played four times for Northamp­ton – four de­feats. But he met a man­ager there, Chris Wilder, and each liked what they saw. Wilder is now man­ager of Sh­effield United.

“It was just the way he played the game, his men­tal­ity to­wards foot­ball, it was just re­fresh­ing,” Stevens says of Wilder. “I didn’t play well when I was at Northamp­ton. When you’re not play­ing games, you for­get you’re a foot­baller. You’re rot­ting away [at Villa] but you’re on good wages, which you don’t want to get away from.”

The re­turn to Don­caster then led to Portsmouth and af­ter pro­mo­tion this May, back to Wilder, now at Bra­mall Lane. It has been a jour­ney; it isn’t over.

With Stevens at left wing-back, Sh­effield United are third in the Cham­pi­onship.

Asked to ex­plain what’s go­ing right, Stevens replies: “It’s com­pet­i­tive­ness, to­geth­er­ness and a want­ing to win, to win ev­ery game. I think that shows in the way we play – front foot. We work hard.”

Stevens wants to play in the Premier League again and he wants to play for Ire­land. At 27 time is on his side, even af­ter a long walk. What would he say to his 16-year-old self?

“Don’t take it for granted, work as hard as you can. Fo­cus, em­brace it and give it your all. There’ll be dis­ap­point­ments but it’s how you come through it. Ap­pli­ca­tion, ded­i­ca­tion, a bit of luck.”

The surge – emo­tional and phys­i­cal – of join­ing a Premier League club was as we would ex­pect. Then Stevens was called by his fa­ther Gerry. Stevens’s older sis­ter Elaine was se­ri­ously ill


Sh­effield United’s Enda Stevens (left) holds off Barns­ley’s Matty Pear­son at Bra­mall Lane. With Stevens at left wing-back, United are third in the Cham­pi­onship

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