'There were fans crying on the pitch and crying in your arms, it means so much to them'

A rejuvenated Enda Stevens is making waves on England’s south coast.

Portsmouth defender Enda Stevens.
Portsmouth defender Enda Stevens.
Image: EMPICS Sport

PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL IS littered with tales of unfulfilled dreams — promising careers ruined by injury, misfortune or poor decision-making.

Keeping that in mind, Enda Stevens’s rejuvenation is particularly heartening.

The Dubliner may still be some distance from a return to the Premier League fishbowl but he’s in a good headspace right now — playing for a re-awakening giant of the English game, and being singled out for praise on a regular basis.

Like any footballer who has tasted the razzmatazz of England’s top flight, he still salivates over the thought of a Premier League return.

For now though, he’s looking forward to playing in a higher division next season, under a manager he has huge respect for, and perhaps most importantly, he finally feels wanted by his employer.

What’s more, he will line out for Portsmouth tomorrow evening knowing that by 8pm there’s a chance, albeit it a slim one, he could have a League Two winner’s medal around his neck.

The former Aston Villa defender has been making waves on England’s south coast since joining Pompey in the summer of 2015, being named Player of the Year by his peers in his first season.

From the outside looking in the 26-year-old seems to be in contention to repeat that feat in his second campaign, being one of three Portsmouth players named in the League Two Team of the Year, alongside Ireland international goalkeeper David Forde and centre-half Christian Burgess.

A mainstay in the division’s meanest defence for the last two seasons, the left-back has safely navigated a trying spell of his career, under the tuition of former Sligo Rovers boss Paul Cook.

There is a peculiar symmetry between the journey of Stevens and that of his current employers.

Stevens’s meteoric rise, from the League of Ireland to a Premier League starter in 11 months, came to a sharp halt — loan spells at Notts County, Northampton Town and Doncaster Rovers (twice) preceded his eventual release by Villa in 2015.

But his troubles had nothing on Portsmouth, the club that suffered near extinction, and relegation three times in four seasons — less than five years after winning the FA Cup, playing European football and establishing themselves as Premier League regulars.

Securing promotion to League One three weeks ago meant a lot to Stevens, who played against both Manchester clubs and Arsenal during his seven Premier League appearances for Villa in a two-month spell during the 2012/13 season. But for Portsmouth fans, the move up a tier meant the world.

“Just to see the final whistle going and the fans invade the pitch, there were fans crying on the pitch, crying in your arms and you just realise this means so much to them. It was great to be a part of that,” Stevens tells The42 ahead of his concluding game of the season against Cheltenham tomorrow evening (5.30pm kick-off).

The fans down here are just desperate for success. The last seven years have been horrible for them and we’re just happy that we could bring them that bit of success. Hopefully it will continue.

“The Notts County game I think we took 5,000 fans away from home, which is phenomenal.”

The joy of the occasion also pierced Stevens on a personal level, it being his first taste of success in England since joining Villa from Rovers at the start of 2012.

Stevens’s slide from the top is one many footballers have struggled with, plenty never to be heard of again.

His success at Portsmouth has helped put those difficult final few years at Villa to bed, and now he feels like he’s playing the best football of his career.

“I went through a phase where… I had one season you could say at Villa where I was involved, only for a few months where I actually played.

“I got an injury then and when I came back I never really performed to the standard that I had before and you don’t get that many chances at the top.

“I kind of just got pushed back even further where I wasn’t involved at all but I still had two years left on my contract.

I had to go out on loan. I enjoyed my loan spells but they’re tough.

“You’re doing a lot of travelling, you don’t feel like a part of the squad. You’re only on loan and you know at the end of the season that you’re just going back to Aston Villa.

“There’s nothing at the end for you. That’s probably the toughest thing about it.”

At the age of 21, the Drimnagh native seemed to have the world at his feet.

After making his Premier League debut as a substitute away at Sunderland in November 2012, he found himself facing esteemed attackers in United duo Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in his first start — a 3-2 defeat at home, with Red Devils substitute ‘Chicharito’ bagging a match-winning brace for the eventual league champions.

A 5-0 defeat at Manchester City the following weekend extended Stevens’s deep-end initiation, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero each claiming doubles.

A respectable 0-0 draw at home to an Arsenal side containing the likes of Olivier Giroud, Andrei Arshavin and Lukas Podolski followed seven days later before Stevens’s four-game Premier League induction came to an abrupt halt when going over on his ankle after 24 minutes against Reading.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Aston Villa v Manchester United - Villa Park Enda Stevens tackles Antonio Valencia during a Premier League game in November 2012. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“It’s what every footballer dreams of doing and I was lucky enough to play against those teams,” recalls Stevens.

“The Man United game is probably the most nervous I’ve been before a game but after that you settle down and you kind of just feel like that’s where you belong.

“It’s up to you to maintain that level of performance and I didn’t do that.

“I got injured against Reading and I never really came back the player that I was.

“You don’t get that many chances up there and the situation we were in — we were fighting relegation — understandably so.

“You can see yourself falling further and further down the pecking order and it just became a case of me having to prove myself again.”

Enda Stevens in action for Shamrock Rovers in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Back at square one, Stevens was sent on the road to prove himself.

“It’s hard, I came over here on my own and I was dropped into a big club like Villa.

“I got a lot of help, don’t get me wrong, they helped me massively settling in and that. But it’s tough when you’re not playing on Saturdays, you go training and then you’ve got the whole weekend to yourself.

“You’re just at home watching the games. I was so used to playing at Shamrock Rovers and you’ve got to come through that.

My first experience of going on loan was at Notts County. I played there and then I broke my toe in training after my second game.

“So I ended up back at Villa, back at the same place again, not playing, just sitting at home watching all of the games. Watching ‘Soccer Saturday’ on Sky Sports.

“It’s tough but I don’t think I ever doubted myself to a degree of having to come back to Ireland. I just thought I was in a sticky situation at the time.

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“Then I went to Doncaster the following year and I enjoyed myself playing in the Championship and it was a massive learning curve.

“It was my first real taste of how demanding the football over in England can be, and it took me a while to get to grips with that.”

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Doncaster Rovers v Derby County - Keepmoat Stadium Enda Stevens tussles with Derby County's Patrick Bamford during a Championship match in April 2014. Source: Nigel French

When Portsmouth came knocking two years ago with their sales pitch, Stevens didn’t need much convincing.

The club’s previous off-field problems weren’t an issue. With their solid fan base and a manager like Cook about to take the reins, it was a no-brainer for a 25-year-old seeking to reinvent himself.

“Once they came in for me I spoke to the agent and they just talked about the fans they get in for home games. They were smashing 17,000 I think and they finished 16th in League Two that season,” the former Ireland U21 international recalls.

“And obviously with the added incentive of Paul Cook going there. Knowing the success he’s had with Chesterfield in League Two (promotion) and Chesterfield in League One (sixth-place finish), you know you’re going in and playing under a successful manager.”

The ever-growing Irish contingent at Portsmouth is an added bonus. Fellow Dubliner Michael Doyle was made club captain after also arriving in the summer of 2015 while the addition of Forde (on loan from Millwall) and Noel Hunt this season has been welcome, although the latter has been out of action since dislocating his shoulder against Hartlepool at the start of last month.

Doyler was here the first year I signed. I knew of Doyler but everyone knew of Doyler, he’s played about 700 competitive games in England.

“He’s played that many games — he’s just a born winner, he’s a born captain and he’s great to have in the team.

“We got Fordey in this season, and the same as Doyler, he just adds so much experience, the will to win.

“They’re both in their mid-30s and their desire to play every game is phenomenal. They never want to miss a game, never want to miss training, and they’ve just added so much to our squad.

“Hunty came in and he’s been great for the strikers, he’s been unlucky not to play many games this season but he’s contributed to helping the young lads. He’s definitely got a future as a coach, I can tell you that.”

Portsmouth v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League Two - Fratton Park Portsmouth captain Michael Doyle. Source: Steven Paston

Portsmouth has already become a home away from home for the affable Dubliner, however with ongoing takeover talks with American billionaire Michael Eisner the priority Stevens is yet to extend his deal with Pompey beyond this summer.

He insists he’d like to stay on but says the off-field stuff can wait, his focus is on claiming the three points when Cheltenham visit Fratton Park tomorrow evening.

If they do that and make it 10 wins from their final 12 games, Plymouth lose at Grimbsy, and Doncaster fail to win at Hartlepool, Cook’s side will cap a remarkable season with the League Two trophy.

Contract or no contract, Stevens knows his career is on an upward curve once again. And that’s something worth celebrating with his eight family members who are travelling over for tomorrow’s game.

“I feel I’m playing my best football since coming to England. And that comes down to being settled, and being at a club that actually wants you and values you as a player.

“That’s just down to that really and working hard. I’ve learned a lot over the past five years.”

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