Enda Stevens’ circuitous career justifies the term ‘journey’
‘There’ll be disappointments but it’s how you come through it. Application, dedication’
Enda Stevens in action for Sheffield United under pressure from Matty Pearson of Barnsley. Photograph: Mark Cosgrove/Action Plus via Getty Images
One irksome byproduct of the kidnapping of the term ‘journey’ by reality television comes when actually encountering someone who has been on a winding, sometimes difficult path. Journey is a word you sidestep like a rock on a road.
When Enda Stevens sat down at Sheffield United’s training ground high on one of the city’s seven hills to reflect on a circuitous career, the Dubliner had every right to speak of his personal and professional ‘journey’.
He did not. Instead, two phrases he repeated were: “I didn’t warrant that” and “You’ve to reinvent yourself”. The latter is what Stevens is doing with the high-flying Blades.
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, of fulfilling the Irish boy’s dream, that trip across the water.
It was at the end of the August 2011 transfer window when Stevens’ transfer from Shamrock Rovers was completed.
“There was interest from a few clubs,” he says. “It was coming up to deadline day in that August and I got a call to say Aston Villa were interested. 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’ 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.”
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.
“Me 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.”
“We got into the Europa League group stage. That was tough because we didn’t win a game and we’d worked so hard to get there. But that was the achievement, getting there.
“Going to White Hart Lane, taking the lead, that’s an experience. So is facing Rubin Kazan, Obafemi Martins. In Dublin against Spurs, Harry Kane scored his first goal for them. It shows what a stepping stone that was.”
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. In Birmingham, as Villa fans awaited Stevens’ arrival, there were Seamus Coleman comparisons.
But once Stevens landed at Villa, he realised what lay ahead, at least some of the time.
“It was a big step up, a bit scary,” he says of the standard of play. “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 eleven months later, the manager who signed Stevens, Alex McLeish, had been replaced by Paul Lambert. There was a substitute appearance at Sunderland, then a home debut 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.
“When you go to a team in the Premier League when you’re young, you’re gonna play well off adrenaline alone. It’s maintaining that level, and I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t good enough then. I’m better now, more consistent.
“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.”
When 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 re-invent yourself and prove yourself again. Then again, it’s a month’s loan, so it’s hard to do over the course of four weeks.”
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. “He shows you a different aspect of playing the game, being positive and the will to win.
“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 – “my last chance saloon” – and after promotion this May, back to Wilder, now at Bramall Lane. It has been a journey; but it isn’t over.
With Stevens at left wing-back, Sheffield United are playing dynamic, energetic football under Wilder. Even when they lost 5-4 at home on Tuesday night they were applauded off. Third in the Championship and not settling for that, there is a gathering spirit at the club – for tonight’s televised home game with Birmingham City, children get in for £1.
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.
“I think that will to win is greater here than what I’ve experienced before, you could say that. We’re all on the same page, we all know each other’s jobs. We’ve got a tight-knit group and as the gaffer says, that doesn’t come from just winning games, it comes from the training pitch and spending time with each other.”
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.”