By Brendan O’Brien
Matt Doherty may be the latest cause celebre but Enda Stevens reckons his time in an Irish shirt has come too.
The similarities between the two are striking. Both started out in the League of Ireland and required spells at a lower level across the water before making the grade at clubs recognised as traditional giants of the game in England. And both are operating as wing-backs.
Doherty’s opportunities with Ireland have been limited because of the presence down the right side of Seamus Coleman and Cyrus Christie – and a reluctance on the part of Martin O’Neill to use a player just named the Premier League’s best in September.
There should be less in the way of obstacles for Stevens. Stephen Ward has been the go-to guy at left-back for years now but the Burnley man is in his thirties, has been exposed too often for comfort at the back and is absent from the current squad anyway thanks to injury.
Stevens should be spying his own spot of real estate down that left side. “It’s how you perform. Obviously, Wardy has been a great servant over the years. He’s injured at the moment and if it’s up for grabs, then I want to play.”
Left-back or left-wing back: it doesn’t matter which. Stevens spent much of his career playing in the first position before switching to the latter last term. It took time to adapt but he feels eminently comfortable in either slot now.
He is 28. A player in his prime. His form at Sheffield United would suggest as much. Operating at wing-back, he has been an ever-present this season in a table-topping Championship team containing John Egan and a goalscoring David McGoldrick.
A dip in collective form at the end of last season saw the Blades slip out of contention for a place in the Premier League but Chris Wilder has strengthened the squad since and hopes are high that they can last the pace this time.
Irish football could certainly do with another trio of its internationals plying their trade at the highest level next season, especially so in a side playing an attacking brand of football, that has drawn plaudits from near and far.
Stevens still scans the list of names anxiously when Martin O’Neill names his Irish squads.
Not surprising for a man who only made a belated debut earlier this year and still has just three caps to his credit, but the wait for his chance has added to his appreciation of these surroundings.
The Republic has shipped two fearful beatings in their last two competitive games, against Denmark and Wales. Stevens made his competitive bow in the latter and knows there is an onus on the squad to atone for the dreadful display in Cardiff in particular.