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Saturday 10 December 2016

We're here for long haul

Squad are confident ahead of Belgian battle says Hendrick

Jeff Hendrick, pictured here in action against Sweden last Monday, insists Ireland won’t be
over-awed by Belgium in Saturday’s Group E clash in Bordeaux Picture: Getty
Jeff Hendrick, pictured here in action against Sweden last Monday, insists Ireland won’t be over-awed by Belgium in Saturday’s Group E clash in Bordeaux Picture: Getty

A manager called O'Neill admitted that his team of Irish players were overawed by the occasion of their first game at Euro 2016 in France and suffered accordingly.

Luckily for Martin O'Neill, it's his namesake Michael who watched his charges suffer from a severe and serious case of first night nerves, Northern Ireland losing 1-0 to Poland in a defeat in their opening group game which makes progress a lot hard to achieve.

From the side which took on Sweden on Monday evening, seven players in green were playing in a major finals for the first time. There was, admits Jeff Hendrick (one of those tournament debutants) a dose of the goosebumbs when Amhrán na bhFiann went up but from the first whistle, it was down to business, down to work, feet on the ground and not a case of heads in the clouds, which augurs well for Saturday's Bordeaux date with the Belgians.

"It was great, stepping out, hearing the national anthem, in front of that number of people, it gave me goosebumps a little bit," says Hendrick.

Occasion

"You look forward to playing in these sort of games. It was a great occasion. I was happy to get the 90 minutes in, maybe a bit disappointed not to come away with a goal myself.

"We have been training two and a half weeks and have just been looking forward to the tournament. Since the first game started on Friday, the excitement has set in a little bit more, we were just looking forward to getting the first game done. Now we are looking forward to the next game."

The Irish players were making their way back to their Versailles base when Italy played Belgium on Monday, so it will have taken the squad time to catch up with events in that one, a 2-0 win for Italy.

But while Belgian confidence has been rocked by that loss, a defeat which again (like 2014) questions whether their star-studded squad can play like a team, Ireland's morale is high.

"We were always quietly confident. We are a hard team to play against. Maybe some countries wrote us off a little bit and thought there would be easier games, maybe Sweden thought it would be easier than it was today (on Monday). So we have got to take confidence from that and build on it," says Hendrick.

"When we came into the tournament, we were concentrating on taking one game at a time. So that is the first game down, we have picked off one point, possibly we could have had three. We have to forget about that now. We got the point, we put in a good performance and we have got to make sure we are ready for Belgium on Saturday."

Distracted

Pre-match talk before the Sweden game was all centred on one man, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Belgium's squad contains more players who carry that 'star' tag, names like Lukaku, de Bruyne and Hazard, not to mention their Premier League-based defenders, and Hendrck says the Irish squad can't get distracted by their elite status.

"You have to focus on all 11. A few of the players were saying in the media during the week before the Sweden game that we couldn't just focus on Zlatan, that they do have other players, and we saw that a few of them played well on the day," he says.

"The main thing against Belgium is that we have to be compact. There will be times during the game when we don't have the ball so we have to make sure they don't get space and get to run at people. We are looking forward to the challenge of it anyway."

Hendrick said the message from Martin O'Neill to his players after the game was for them to "hold their heads high" after Monday, and Hendrick feels that applies to defender Ciaran Clark, despite his own goal.

Having scored in the correct end against Switzerland in March, Clark watched in agony as his header went past Darren Randolph.

"I thought Clarky played great," says Hendrick, looking back to Monday.

"He won a lot of balls in the air, he played out and won his tackles. He should keep his head up high as well. He tried to do the right thing by clearing it. These things happen in football."

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