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Stevens rejects argument that O'Neill can take Ireland no further

The Sheffield United man backed the Ireland manager after making his first competitive international start.

Paul Dollery reports from Aarhus, Denmark

ONE WOULD HAVE to assume that this wasn’t what Enda Stevens had in mind when he envisaged the scene in the aftermath of another career milestone.

Stevens is one of the few Ireland players who might reflect positively on 2018. A first senior cap in June’s friendly against USA has been followed by five more since.

Denmark v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Nations League - Group B4 - Ceres Park Enda Stevens won his sixth Ireland cap while making his first competitive start last night against Denmark. Source: Simon Cooper

Last night’s game against Denmark gave him his first start in a competitive senior international. Replacing the suspended James McClean, the Sheffield United player was selected in the wing-back role on the left.

When Stevens faced the media at Ceres Park in Aarhus following the goalless draw with the Danes, his own personal landmark was swiftly cast aside in favour of questions relating to another disappointing showing from Ireland.

Having been just a few weeks shy of his 28th birthday when he finally got to wear the green jersey, the Dubliner could be forgiven for wondering if it was really worth the wait.

“Obviously they’ve got good players all over the pitch and it’s a tough place to come. It was just a case of not conceding too early,” Stevens said after a game in which Ireland managed to cling to a clean sheet despite Denmark’s dominance.

“I thought we started well. They were always going to have a spell where they got on top. It was up to us to see it out and wait for our chances. We didn’t get too many tonight but a clean sheet is obviously a positive.”

Ireland’s success in denying Denmark a goal came at the expense of any offensive threat of their own. Martin O’Neill’s side, who now haven’t scored in four consecutive games, failed to register a single shot on target.

The latest abject display under O’Neill’s stewardship has increased the pressure on the Ireland boss at the end of a year which produced just one win in nine games. However, Stevens has backed the 66-year-old to revive the team’s fortunes in 2019.

“Not at all,” he said, when asked if O’Neill has taken Ireland as far as he can. “He’s capped an awful lot of new players over the course of this year. It’s going to take time to gel and get used to each other.

Denmark v Republic of Ireland - UEFA Nations League - Group B4 - Ceres Park Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Source: Simon Cooper

“We’ve had a long injury list. Robbie Brady was out for a while, James McCarthy is still to come back in, so it’s positive in a way. These players coming back can only help us.”

Insisting that the added scrutiny can galvanise Ireland, Stevens added: “It will only bring us closer together. It’s a tight-knit dressing room. Each and every one of the lads works as hard as they can for each other, for the manager, for the staff and for the badge.

“We want to do well and we’re working hard for that. We’re proud to represent our country. All we can do is keep working away and hopefully things will click.”

The Ireland players will now switch their focus back to club commitments, before returning to international duty when the Euro 2020 qualifiers begin in March.

“We’ll be going into the qualifiers confident enough to say we’re good enough to qualify,” said Stevens. “The players are there, the squad is there. It’s just about getting that winning mentality, and getting used to winning.” 

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Paul Dollery

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