It was against Georgia at Lansdowne Road in 2015 that Jeff Hendrick announced himself on the Irish scene, but his mission in tonight’s rematch is to restore rather than enhance his reputation. Hendrick’s deft footwork on the left allowed him to scamper to the end-line and deliver a cross for Jon Walters to prod in the solitary goal, which propelled Ireland towards securing third spot and a Euro play-off.
The midfielder was then a 23-year-old Championship regular for Derby County, newly installed as a vital cog in Martin O’Neill’s set-up. Even better was to follow at the finals in France, his displays in particular against Italy and France copper- fastening his status out as one of the few elements safe from being dropped.
All appeared to be continuing in the right direction at the start of the next campaign, a potential journey towards the World Cup in Russia, when he netted his first senior international goal in the campaign opener in Serbia. Hendrick had earlier that week been elevated to Premier League level by Burnley splashing out €12m for his signature.
With Glenn Whelan ageing and James McCarthy beset by injury problems, the Dubliner was Ireland’s primary midfielder. What ensued, however, was a gradual deterioration in his contribution for club and country. Inconsistency dogged him and O’Neill had a point when declaring that Hendrick was struggling to maintain his trajectory.
Maybe a factor was an upcoming criminal case, one played out within the public glare in July 2017. Though he was eventually cleared of violent disorder charges, the stresses and strains, not just on him, but also his family living in Dublin, were bound to be a distraction. The resulting media intrusion horrified him and he adopted an interview blackout for well over a year. In his first press interaction last year, Hendrick spoke of the support he received from fans during the ordeal and he said he was a better player than was evident during the dying embers of O’Neill’s era. Still, he felt some of the flak went overboard.
“Those three or four games at the Euros must be the only good games I’ve ever played for Ireland,” he said with a hint of sarcasm. “For people to say that, I must not have played a good game before or after that.”
Mick McCarthy certainly needs him to perform during his one and only campaign at the helm. Saturday’s present of a goal, only his second in 46 appearances, was gladly received by the new manager, as Gibraltar were well on their way to causing an upset.
Nonetheless, in a broader sense, more is required by one of his talisman in the engine-room. Deploying him in his preferred position is a start. Whereas O’Neill used him in a variety of roles during the last campaign, primarily on the right, his most effective games were in a central role.
“Central midfield is where I have played for most of my career and feel most comfortable. When I have been playing in other positions I have just been filling in or doing a job for the team. I really enjoyed playing centrally in the new manager’s first game.
“I have started off this era with a goal there. I’ll try to get into the box more often, get onto the end of balls in and around the box and shoot more. It’s nice to see your name on the scoresheet. While I think I have seen some good times already in my Ireland career, I have only just turned 27. I still have plenty of years to go. I know that there’s improvement there."
Hendrick was absent through injury when Ireland last met Georgia in September 2017, a 1-1 draw which scuppered their prospect of automatic World Cup qualification. Back on home soil, he’s confident that they have learned from that blow and the effect of McCarthy’s return should be a help.
“Maybe we made it too easy for Georgia in that game, so it’s something we need to change. We’re only a week into working with the new manager, but it’s up to us to start well and get the crowd going. We’ve some great night and results there over the years. In such a big stadium, the noise from the stands travels right across the pitch.”
Another cameo like 2015 and Hendrick will have them singing to his tune.