When Enda Stevens returns to Aston Villa tomorrow, he will be unrecognisable from the player who signed for the club five years ago.
But the starry-eyed youngster, who after leaving the former European champions went on to become one of the most accomplished wing-backs in the English Football League, has no time to reminisce as we sit down to discuss his career path. Because, given the composition of Sheffield United’s first team squad, picking a Rest of the World team for a training ground five-a-side against Great Britain is proving a tortuous exercise in genealogy.
“There aren’t many of us,” he says, laughing. “Caolan (Lavery) is Canadian/Irish, Cameron (Carter-Vickers) has played for the USA, Clayton Donaldson Jamaica and Richard Stearman holds an Irish passport. So, if we can get Del (Geary) out of retirement, the numbers are good although we might have to use a fly goalie.”
Stevens, who joined Chris Wilder’s side during the close season, is among only two players actually born overseas on the books at Bramall Lane. It is a quirk which prompted one Spanish journalist to describe them as ‘Total Brexit’ and, despite being factually inaccurate, clearly irritated United’s manager when it was raised during a press conference earlier this term. Stevens, reclining in a chair at the Steelphalt Academy, is also perplexed by the title but appreciates why it has become a talking point.
“A few things might be said on the outside about this being an all-British group or whatever. To be honest, it makes no difference at all to us. We don’t talk about it because where somebody is from makes no difference. The only thing we are bothered about is trying to get results.”
United, despite being sixth in the table and chasing back-to-back promotions, have recorded some decidedly disappointing ones of late. Indeed, following last weekend’s narrow defeat by Preston, they travel to Stevens’ former club having gone five matches without a win. It is a situation which has prompted Wilder and his staff to analyse every aspect of their preparations and tactics during games. Stevens understands the concern. However, responding to claims United should become more conservative, cautions against diluting their attacking approach.
“The gaffer is full-on and you can tell he loves the way we play,” he says. “I actually think he gets a kick out of it. He’s got an infectious personality and his first demand is that we work hard. The second is that, in my position, we provide quality crosses and passes. Actually, he’s a bit of a perfectionist.”
Stevens has been perfecting his own art since signing professional terms with League of Ireland outfit UCD in 2008. And like United, who were top of the rankings exactly five weeks ago, he knows that, in football, you must learn to take the rough with the smooth. Born in Dublin, Stevens appeared set for stardom when, following spells at St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers, he was lured to England by then Villa manager Alex McLeish. But having made his full league debut in a Premier League fixture against Manchester United, the 27-year-old spent most of his time there being farmed-out on loan before completing permanent transfers first to Portsmouth and then, having won the League Two title, South Yorkshire. Despite remembering his time at Villa Park fondly, Stevens reveals ex-Birmingham City defender Jeff Kenna and Paul Peschisolido, previously of United, were responsible for equipping him with the skills to compete with the likes of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
“Jeff Kenna was someone I played under, while McLeish signed me for Villa. It was a good season in terms of where we finished. I didn’t play any part but it was the highest finish the club had managed for a while.
“Jeff was my first senior manager at St Pats. I was 17 or 18 at the time. A lot of things had changed in the league back then, budget wise. He came into a club with a massive wage bill that got absolutely slashed. He left towards the end of the season. Him and Pesh both went. Alex obviously was good for me too but, the problem was, because he’s also been at City, the fans never took to him. There’s massive hatred there.”
The same can not be said at United where Wilder, despite their recent downturn, enjoys a wonderful rapport with the terraces. Stevens, whose induction involved serenading his new team mates, explains relations are just as cordial behind the scenes.
“I did my song on the pre-season trip to Marbella. It was Uncle Kracker’s Follow Me. I reckon I nailed it but the rest of the lads will probably tell you something different. It’s good that we’ve got such a strong bond because we spend more time with each other than we do our families.”
Stevens attributes his performances in a red and white jersey to that camaraderie.
“The Championship is tough but enjoyable and exciting. Each game brings a different challenge and I love that.
“It is a massive step-up compared to last season, even in terms of joining a team that ran away with League One. That would have been a big step-up anyway.
When I arrived, it took me a while to get used to the intensity and the quality of the lads. That took me a bit of time over pre-season but I do feel to have grown and grown with each game as it comes along. If you fell nervous around people to begin with then, chances are, you’re going to start-off slow. But because I felt at home straight away, that’s really helped. Getting along with each other so well can only be a positive.”
Speaking before boarding the coach at Deepdale, Wilder admitted he was considering a change of formation to help coax United back to form. The return of Mark Duffy and David Brooks after being struck down by illness should ease some of the pressure on a group certain to be missing John Fleck and Paul Coutts, But, after beating Villa in the FA Cup three years ago, there is a school of thought that, psychologically speaking, tackling Steve Bruce’s men will sit more comfortably with United than fixtures against the likes of Millwall and, most recently, Preston.
“The fans stick with us because they can see what we are trying to do,” Stevens says. “We could play it safe as a newly promoted club. Try to play on the counter and snatch 1-0 wins here and there but that isn’t how the gaffer wants to do it. Our outlook stays the same, no matter who we play; get in their faces and make it uncomfortable for them.”