Jeff Hendrick bids to keep Belgium in check

Initially, it sounds like Jeff Hendrick is going to give a predictably routine footballer’s response when he is asked how the Irish players are filling in their downtime between games and training sessions here at Euro 2016.

“Watch box sets, watch movies,” he begins, before taking us a little bit — well, more than a little bit, actually — by surprise. “Myself and Aiden McGeady are playing chess. It’s 2-1 to me at the moment but it’s close. They have been long games, good tactical battles. Maybe we should get a time clock.”

Turns out the Dubliner played “a little bit” as a youngster. “It’s an enjoyable game,” he elaborates. “It keeps you thinking. I suppose none of us like to lose so that’s why we are taking so long with our shots. And because I beat Aido the first time, he’s been on to me now and he wants to keep playing. So I’m going to have to try and keep beating him.”

The revelation that he and McGeady are chess mates — Richard Keogh and Stephen Ward are also getting in on the act — is only the second surprise Hendrick has sprung at this tournament. The first, perhaps, was that he not only featured in the starting 11 against Sweden but emerged as a strong contender for the man of the match award with an outstanding performance. He has impressed for Ireland before, of course, but after a season disrupted by injury and an undistinguished display in the eve of tournament warm-up game against Belarus in Cork, there was a growing view that the 24-year-old Dubliner might stay stuck on 21 caps for a while longer.

Martin O’Neill, a serious fan of the Derby player, clearly didn’t share that opinion — even if he did concede that the midfielder’s performance at Turner’s Cross in Cork had been “rusty” — and Hendrick duly repaid his manager’s faith at the Stade de France.

“You never really know what the team is going to be until it is named. In the back of my mind, I was unsure and thinking it could be someone else in and I was just hoping that it would be me. We find out the team around the same time for every game so we’re used to it. You just have to make sure you’re ready if called upon.”

The sense of occasion was, he says with a smile, everything he hoped it would be.

“Stepping out onto the pitch and hearing the national anthems — it was just goosebumps and I was dying for the game to start.”

The action itself then came agonisingly close to living up to his dreams too, as Hendrick had a couple of Ireland’s best efforts on goal, including that spectacular shot which thumped back off the bar.

“I thought it had a good chance (of going in) and I was just hoping that it dipped a little bit more but unfortunately it didn’t,” he says. “Maybe on another day they would have. It wasn’t meant to be but luckily enough Wes came up with a lovely goal.”

So, despite his best efforts, Hendrick has gone another 90 minutes without breaking his international duck. “Yeah,” he grimaces.

“Before the game, I was getting it into my mind to shoot and keep shooting. Hopefully I can bring that into this game. I’m ready to be selected for the next game and I’ve got to go out and put in another good performance.”

The players are by now well acquainted with what lies in wait in Bordeaux this afternoon, having had their initial glimpse of Belgium’s difficulties against Italy while they were en route to base camp from Paris after the draw with Sweden.

“We caught a bit of the first half on the way back – luckily Clarky (Ciaran Clark) had it on his phone,” says Hendrick. “I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the result. I didn’t rknow what way the game would go but I knew it would be a tough match.

“Every tournament Italy are in they do well, they’re hard to play against. And I knew it would be the same for Belgium. We watch videos on every team we play against and you get an insight into the way they play, what they’re good at and if they have weaknesses what the weaknesses are. The main thing for us is to take it on board and focus on our gameplan and make sure we’re ready.”

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