The right side of defence isn’t the most alluring of sectors on a teamsheet but all eyes will gravitate there when the first starting XI of Mick McCarthy’s second stint in charge of the Republic of Ireland is released today. The suspicion is that the new Ireland boss will accommodate both Seamus Coleman and Matt Doherty by giving the latter a more advanced role but it is a complication that must be solved. The decision on the other side of his defence looks much more straightforward. Stephen Ward has retired from international football and the manager was firm in his conviction this week, in his view, that Robbie Brady is an attacking option rather than a left-back. All of which leaves Enda Stevens as the only recognised No 3 in the current squad.
Stevens is 28 now and still has just half-a-dozen caps to his name. Four of them came off the bench and he spoke yesterday of his desire to simply start a truly competitive game for his country — Nations League doesn’t cut that mustard — on home soil. He is a fixture in a Sheffield United side playing some superb football, in attack and defence, and eight games away from promotion and a place in the Premier League. And McCarthy may well have name-checked him more than any other player this last few months. The man is a shoo-in for a start against Gibraltar.
“Well, football doesn’t really look like that. You’re not given anything. You have to earn it and that’s exactly what me and every single player in the camp has to do. It is a fresh slate and he is going to base his team on what he sees in training so you have to make sure you are at it.”
McCarthy has indicated that he will lean towards a flat back four rather than three central defenders and two wing-backs and, while Stevens plays week in and week out in the latter system, he has no qualms about reverting to a more orthodox left-full role. Comfortable in both, he makes the point that he has spent much the greater slice of a career that already spans 10 clubs between this country and England in an old-fashioned 4-4-2 than he has in a more advanced position that took some acclimatisation. Any teething problems he had fitting in with United are long past now. David McGoldrick, a teammate with club and country, suggested that Stevens is probably the Blades’ best player this season in their push up to second in the Championship table.
“Did he, yeah? Probably vice versa, you know? We are all playing well. If you look at it through the team we have Billy (Sharp) banging in the goals, Didzi (McGoldrick) is producing, you’ve got Ollie Norwood, (John Egan) being a rock at the back.
“The three centre-halves have probably been our best players.”
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder has given his centre-backs licence to roam up-field and yet the side hasn’t conceded a goal at home in the league since St Stephen’s Day. The last goal conceded of any stripe was against Derby County on February 8. Unbeaten in 1, they leapfrogged Leeds United into the automatic promotion places with a gutsy 1-0 win at Elland Road last Friday when an annoyed Patrick Bamford took exception at the manner in which the visitors celebrated the three points. Dean Henderson, the goalkeeper on loan from Manchester United, and who gifted Leeds a 1-0 win in the reverse fixture, attracted plenty of abuse from the home fans’ during the game and then cupped his ears in a goading gesture at the final whistle.
“We didn’t over-celebrate,” said Stevens. “Not at all. It was a tough game. We grinded out a clean sheet. I think the keeper over-celebrated but that is for his own personal reasons and he was kind of right to do so. They are all pressure games. We have a tougher one now probably against Bristol City at home when we get back from the international break but I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’ve just come into the Irish squad so I’m just focusing on this set-up and try to perform to my best if I play.”
McCarthy’s return has helped eradicate the negativity of last year. This is a clean slate for everyone and Stevens is eager to play his part in bringing about the sort of buzz that he remembers from the early noughties when his father took him to see McCarthy’s first Ireland side in action.
And Gibraltar away and Georgia at home — though the latter have been tricky opposition in the past — gives everyone involved the opportunity to hit the ground running before Switzerland and Denmark appear on the horizon.
“The players have to stand up and be counted. You have to judge the players on performances and if we can get the performances back, get the wins and be competing up at the top end of the play-offs, then obviously the crowd will get behind us."