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'His performances in recent times have not been up to the standard he attained in the Euros'

Martin O’Neill has challenged Jeff Hendrick to improve on recent displays for his country.

Jeff Hendrick shows his disappointment in Cardiff.
Jeff Hendrick shows his disappointment in Cardiff.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE SUMMER OF 2016 felt like a footballing coming of age for Jeff Hendrick.

Previously regarded as a promising youngster, the midfielder was, in most critics’ eyes, Ireland’s standout performer at Euro 2016, excelling in particular during the draw with Sweden and the famous win over Italy.

As the Dubliner thrived against some of the best players in Europe, the accolades followed.

Former Ireland assistant boss Marco Tardelli recalled a young Hendrick and the promise he saw in the player.

“We picked him up at Derby County, in the Championship,” the World Cup winner said. “I was there to see a central defender, but I was struck by him.

He’s what you’d call a player of the past, but the truth is a bit different. He is modern in ways that aren’t immediately perceived, but they emerge when you really need them. I offered him to some Italian teams, but maybe he wasn’t expensive enough.”

After the Italy win, meanwhile, Robbie Keane remarked of Hendrick: “I told Tottenham to buy him four years ago and they wouldn’t listen!”

On the back of the Euro 2016 displays, Hendrick didn’t get a move to Spurs, but he was signed by Burnley the following August for a club record £10.5 million fee on a three-year deal.

Yet the manner in which the optimism regarding Hendrick has dwindled since then is mirrored in how Ireland as a team have failed to build on a hugely promising Euros more than two years on.

He did help the Clarets finish seventh last season, so it is not as if the Dubliner has been hugely disappointing, though there remains the nagging feeling that the 26-year-old is capable of playing much better, particularly at international level.

It doesn’t help that Hendrick has been in and out of the Burnley team this season, while he was not a guaranteed starter last year either.

The former St Kevin’s Boys youngster has been played almost as a number 10 or advanced midfielder at club level for the most part, rather than the deeper role he invariably occupies for Ireland.

Martin O'Neill Martin O'Neill has confirmed that Jeff Hendrick will start against Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Speaking at the press conference on Friday, Ireland boss Martin O’Neill said that it was time to “move on” from the Euros, yet the 66-year-old coach struggled to heed his own advice. He referenced Hendrick’s performances in France that summer no less than five times over the course of the 28-minute press conference. While claiming that the Dubliner’s displays since then have not been as bad as his detractors claim, the former Celtic boss acknowledged that he was expecting more from the player.

“He was absolutely outstanding in the Euros, I think he can get back to there, he has to do,” O’Neill said. “You have to sometimes reassess your game and he has the capabilities and the natural talent to do that. Jeff Hendrick, in proper form, is a big player for us. 

“His performances in recent times have not been up to the standard he attained in the Euros.

“I just think we have to take one thing into consideration: he was part of a side that actually did go up until the two matches [against Denmark and Wales], went 11 games with one defeat, and we never lost in a game away from home.

“We went to some difficult places — in fact he scored a goal out in Serbia — so he had reached a very high performance level in the Euros, and so the expectation on himself and Robbie Brady and the likes of Seamus Coleman did become very high.

“It became high with all of us, and I think it became high with himself as well. Sometimes whatever you do, maybe you don’t reach that sort of level, but that was very high.

“He was terrific against Sweden — that particular day, I thought he was man of the match against a side which ended up doing not too badly again in the World Cup.

“I just think you have to give him a little bit of slack here. He’s done exceptionally well. There are some games where he didn’t do so well, but the very fact is that we’re judging him now on the performances that he made out in France.”

Hendrick revealed yesterday that assistant boss Roy Keane had a sit-down chat with him to go over his disappointing performance in last month’s comprehensive 4-1 loss to Wales, suggesting these words of advice helped him deliver an improved display in the subsequent encounter with Poland. 

Asked himself how he can improve and show more leadership, Hendrick bluntly replied: “I have to play better.”

When pressed on his struggles to recapture his Euro 2016 form, the player added: “I’m summarising 20-odd caps here. Each game is different, really. I have played in a few different positions, we have played some really hard opposition. I think I’ve done well in some games; other games, I’ve not done well.

“At the end of the day, I expect a lot from myself as well going into games and I haven’t been happy with a lot of my performances, so I’m trying to put that right.”

O’Neill confirmed that Hendrick would start tonight’s Nations League clash with Denmark at the Aviva Stadium, but was unwilling to say whether Cardiff’s Harry Arter would join him in midfield.

The 28-year-old pulled out of Ireland’s last squad following a row with Keane, and O’Neill agreed with the suggestion that Arter has a point to prove.

“Harry is starting for Cardiff, though it’s obviously not been great, he could do better. He is starting matches, but if he gets the opportunity, I think he’s ready for it now. He’s put [the Keane controversy] behind him. I think we all have. He’s come back into the squad, and I think the way he’s come back into the squad is to prove a point, which he should be [wanting to do].”

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Paul Fennessy

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