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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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'I'm finding my feet' - Enda Stevens in pole position to nail down Irish left-back berth

With Stephen Ward retired, the Sheffield United looks set to further capitalise on his exceptional club form.

Enda Stevens.
Enda Stevens.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IRELAND’S DEPTH AT right-back is much observed, but options on the opposite flank have become more relevant in the last few days following Stephen Ward’s retirement. 

With Mick McCarthy hinting he sees Matt Doherty as a right-sided player in spite of signing him as a left-back for Wolves in 2010, the position is probably Enda Stevens’ to lose. 

The former Shamrock Rovers defender is flexible in the sense that he can play as an orthodox left-back along with left wing-back, a position in which he has excelled with Sheffield United this season. 

“There’s an opportunity there, for everyone”, Stevens told a press conference ahead of Irish training. 

“It’s a fresh slate with a new manager and staff. It’s a case of trying to impress in training and hopefully, if I get the opportunity, it will be down to me to take it.” 

As to whether McCarthy intends to deploy a flat back four or maintain the squeezing of three central defenders between wing-backs that was a feature of the final days of the last regime, Stevens has no idea. 

Stevens is having an outstanding season with Sheffield United, who are currently a point ahead of Leeds United in the Championship’s automatic promotion places with eight games of the season to go. 

He has started all but one of United’s 38 league games thus far this season, and has played every minute of those games since the start of October. 

“I’m finding my feet”, said Stevens of his rich vein of form.

“I’m enjoying my football and playing in a good team. We’re not a team with the biggest names, but we go out there and play football and everyone knows their jobs. 

“We have good relationships on the pitch and off the pitch.”

Stevens also insists those positive vibes are found in the Irish camp, and were there last year under Martin O’Neill. 

“It’s a bit similar.

“The lads won’t change. It was a great camp last year and that won’t change.

It’s a good camp to be coming into. It’s a fresh start, everyone has the belief they have the chance to play. For the likes of Mark [Travers], he probably felt a bit uncomfortable when he first came in but he has settled in straight away.

“There are no egos; people welcome you and you settle in straight away.”

Stevens was also certain that there won’t be any negativity lingering from last year. 

“No, I don’t think so. I think there’ll be an excitement there and a feel-good factor there. It comes down to us to perform. 

“We are confident as players, I’m sure the manager and staff are confident, and while the group looks competitive it’s one we think we can do well in.” 

Stevens is not the only player with Shamrock Rovers’ connections in the squad this week, with Jack Byrne drafted in as a late replacement for the injured Callum O’Dowda. 

Jack Byrne Jack Byrne in Irish training this week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Stevens has been impressed by a player in contention to be the first from the League of Ireland to be capped in a competitive senior international since 1985.

“In terms of Jack, he just needed to go and play football. He was unfortunate at Oldham as he was having a pretty good season.

“He needs to play a lot of games, build himself back up and everyone knows how good he is.

He’s got the hunger back, and he’s been rewarded by a call-up.

“Jack is a personality. The bigger the occasion the better he’ll play. He thrives on being the best player on the pitch. He has an arrogance about him, a swagger about him and he loves it.” 

Byrne’s call-up, says Stevens, reflects well on the domestic league. 

“The league is becoming a lot more professional now. With the set up you see at Rovers, there is more of an academy feel, and then you can progress into the first team.

“Look at Dundalk over the last few years, you’ve got Cork looking really strong. It’s probably the best the league has looked in a long time, and it will probably only get better.” 

“As Stevens jostles for the position as Ward’s replacement, veteran defender Richard Keogh paid tribute to the retiring left-back. 

Stephen Ward Stephen Ward during his 50th and final Irish appearance last September. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I think there was a little bit surprise as he worked with Mick before and done so well for him, so I thought he might have stayed for this campaign. But with his knee injury, he felt it was time for him to step away, along with the younger lads coming through. 

“He was such a great guy. I played him with underage groups coming through, and then with the seniors. He had a fantastic career for Ireland, to get too 50 caps you don’t do that by chance. 

“We’re going to miss him in the group as he was a great character. But good luck to him, he had a great career and he’s a great man.” 

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Gavin Cooney

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