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Saturday 21 September 2019

2016 is still benchmark the for Jeff

Hendrick has not repeated Euro 2016 heroics but boss McCarthy may have sparked a revival

Ireland pair Jeff Hendrick (left) and James McClean during the Euro 2016 match against Sweden at Stade de France
Ireland pair Jeff Hendrick (left) and James McClean during the Euro 2016 match against Sweden at Stade de France

This week he will join the band of players who have been picked to play for their country 50 times. Next week, his stint of national service over, he will return to his base in England, to his Premier League lifestyle.

Looking at the career of Jeff Hendrick right now, picking holes could be seen as nitpicking, especially as only a handful of central midfielders (among them the best ever like Roy Keane, John Giles, Ronnie Whelan) have reached the 50-cap mark.

And yet. And yet the problem for Hendrick as he gears up to face Switzerland tomorrow night is that his international career reached such a peak on the fields of France in 2016 that it's been a struggle to reach that.

Hendrick has had other struggles too, at club level. Burnley have played four Premier League games this season but Hendrick has played just four minutes. He's out of contract at the end of this season and so far, in public at least, there has been no chat about extending his stay at the club.

Hendrick and Brady were the poster boys of the Irish side after they reached the last 16 of the European Championships in France but since then, neither man has hit those heights.

Dragged down

The lads from St Kevin's Boys were dragged down by the gloom of the late Martin O'Neill era as much as anyone else in the squad and Brady has been dogged by injuries for 18 months now, not fit enough to merit a place in the Irish squad this week.

Even McCarthy's predecessor admitted that matching up to 2016 was a struggle for Hendrick.

"He had reached a very high performance level in the Euros and the expectations on himself and Robbie Brady and the likes of Seamus Coleman did become very high," Martin O'Neill said last year.

"It became high with all of us. I think it became high within himself too. Sometimes, whatever you do, you don't reach that sort of level."

Three years on, we're s till waiting for Hendrick to move up towards greatness, though there is the real prospect of a rebirth under Mick McCarthy.

Across the water yesterday, even those who don't care about Newcastle United sat back and watched with glee as a bitter online row developed between one-time team-mates Michael Owen and Alan Shearer over Owen's account of his time at Newcastle United, the firm belief of everyone outside of the Owen camp that the former Liverpool striker simply didn't care when he was a Magpie.

The people around Hendrick would feel that he has been picked on for his struggle to match those 2016 levels but the player himself admits that while it has been a battle to get back to those highs, it's not for the lack of effort.

"The criticism is fine - everyone is going to criticise you. If I am playing out of position, they can criticise me for not keeping the ball or not doing the things I should do as a footballer," he said yesterday.

"But the things people are saying - I'm not trying and I'm not working hard, that was tough, because I give everything when I put the green jersey on.

"I work hard, I get the running stats from every game, and me and James McClean are trying to beat each other, see who's running more. I'm never going to post that online - you are giving people a reaction then.

"We are all just trying to do our best for the country and if we couldn't reach the highs of the Euros we were certainly trying to get there. It just didn't happen sometimes," Hendrick added.

"I think the Euros was such a high for everyone and the performance levels, I think, were quite high from the whole squad. A few of the lads then left the squad after that and we had some injuries. So it was a completely new team and I don't think I saw that being mentioned many times."

One black mark against Hendrick is his record of goals scored in the Ireland shirt, two goals in 49 games. That poor return is nothing new - failure to find the net from midfield has dogged the national team for almost two decades.

Players like Aiden McGeady (failed to score in his first 40 internationals) and Glenn Whelan (an average of one goal every 43 games for Ireland) were unable to chip in the way midfielders like Roy Keane had done.

"Whether I'm scoring or assisting, that's what I enjoy in football, and I haven't scored enough. Obviously I got the goal against Serbia away and I thought, right, there's my chance to kick on and try to get some more goals. But it was tough," says Henderick.

In his defence, a lot of his time in the green jersey, especially under Martin O'Neill, was spent with not so much a defensive mindset but a lack of clarity about his role. He feels he was played out of position at times, which took away from his concentration.

"I'd say for the 10 games from 30 caps on, I was out of position. I was playing on the right, I was nearly up top for a few games. For me, I was trying to adapt and do well for the team in that position," Hendrick says.

"I do know football but it wasn't natural for me to play in those positions. But in the last few games, I think you can see that I'm playing in my position."

The bar was set high but, at 27, McCarthy may be the coach to coax Hendrick back to where he was.

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