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Features | Sport

Interview: Jeff Hendrick on choosing soccer over Gaelic and Martin O’Neill’s magic touch

Hendrick was highly rated as a youth Gaelic footballer at Parnells in Dublin [©INPHO/Cathal Noonan]
Hendrick was highly rated as a youth Gaelic footballer at Parnells in Dublin [©INPHO/Cathal Noonan]
IT WAS the morning after the night before. The night before being Bosnia. The play-off. The best night Irish football had known since 2001 when Jason McAteer put away Holland and Louis Van Gaal first gave Manchester United fans a glimpse of his mediocrity.

And in the lobby of the Irish team hotel in Castleknock, the supermen from the previous evening were back in their civvies, looking more like Clark Kent. All around them were family and friends, re-telling stories from the game and the night.

Ireland were on their way back to the European Championship finals again and in the process had reconnected with their supporters. Four years ago, after three straight defeats in Poland, divorce occurred. The seats stayed empty at the Aviva. And those who bothered to show up stayed quiet.

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What they needed was something to shout about. And finally, the players gave them that. First Germany. Then Bosnia. “That win over the Germans definitely gave us a bit of confidence,” Jeff Hendrick, a hero of that victory, told The Irish Post.

“But we can’t think – ‘okay just because we did well against Germany, it is a given that we will do it against other countries this summer’ – because we know we are going to have tough games. Belgium are class. So too Italy. Sweden have brilliant players, so at times we won’t have the ball in this tournament. On the other hand, we can’t give them too much respect and fear them because what we have done to get to this stage is impressive.”

What’s most impressive is how Hendrick didn’t fall to pieces after fluffing his lines when he was first asked to step on stage, against Scotland in Glasgow in November 2014. Ineffectual that night, he could easily have drifted away. Instead, he kept coming back, earning the trust of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane.

“Roy was my hero growing up,” Hendrick says. He wore Keane’s number 16 shirt when he played with his mates, one of whom was Robbie Brady. Even when he went to Parnells, his local GAA club, where Stephen Cluxton – the Dublin captain and a family friend – is king, the United shirt was worn.

“I was with Dublin [their underage development squad] for a year or two but it used to clash with football and they’d go mad when I wouldn’t show up to games. I only played Gaelic with the school just to get out of class really. It’s a good sport but I remember my teacher wanted me to give up soccer for Gaelic. He said I was good enough to play for Dublin but there was no chance of me doing that. It was always going to be football [soccer] for me.”

And it has paid off. He’s a regular with Ireland now – and has been on the radar of Premier League clubs for the guts of four years. But whereas, in 2013, he was happy to take his time about moving to the top tier – ‘what’s the rush?’ – now he’s getting itchy feet. “It’s the place I want to go to.”

Before then, though, he wants to go and make an impact in France. “What’s concerning me slightly is the quad and shoulder injuries I have got so I have to make sure I get myself back fit, to be ready for selection. It is such a big summer. When we met up [in March] they gave us the itinerary of what is up ahead, all that sort of stuff. That was when the excitement started.”

It’ll start again when an email will arrive in his inbox – a 20-minute video for him, and the other players, to download, detailing precisely the strengths and weaknesses of the Belgians, Italians and Swedes – a ritual that has become part of the O’Neill regime since he replaced Giovanni Trapattoni two-and-a-half years ago. “It has an impact,” Hendrick said.

As does so much of O’Neill’s work. “The thing about Martin is that he has created a really good club vibe with us.

“We are a close knit group and it helps because whenever we go out onto the pitch, we work hard for each other. It is enjoyable, a relaxed environment – being with Ireland. We go to the cinema, chill out, in the build-up to games. He leaves that to us. Then, when it comes to the games, he says his bit beforehand and makes you feel good about yourself.”

Martin O'Neill [Picture: Inpho]
Martin O’Neill has a way with words, says Hendrick [Picture: Inpho]
How? “Well, I don’t have any quotes for you,” Hendrick smiled. “Before the game, he goes around and talks to people individually and says a bit in front of the whole group. He builds you up, makes you feel good and that is what you need. He gives you confidence.”

Not that Hendrick needs too much of it. As a kid, he knew he’d make it, which was why he trusted his instincts and signed for Derby – rather than United, who were also interested in him – because he could see a clearer route to the top from the starting point of the Championship.

Before he was 20, he was in their team and the night after his 21st birthday, he was invited by Giovanni Trapattoni to hook up with the Irish squad.

“All my friends, all my family were over, aunts and uncles, the lot. My mum and dad had made it a surprise, booking out a room in the local hotel. Then I got the call by Giovanni so, for me, there was no drinking. I had an early flight the next morning – so I actually left my family in Derby and flew back home. That experience whet my appetite. It made me want more.”

He has got it under O’Neill and if it is easy to imagine how he could have been star-struck being in Keane’s company – the same guy he once idolised – then you have to take into account how footballers have a habit of backing themselves. “You need belief,” he said. “Belief and a willingness to work hard.”

Which are precisely the qualities Ireland will need in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille this June.

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