Enda Stevens pauses for a moment and rocks back and forth in his chair before answering the question which, despite being designed to end our conversation, instead steers it into an entirely different realm.
“Who is the best player I’ve come up against? That’s a tough one, it really is. I’d have to say Diego, the little Brazilian to be honest. He was excellent, really something else.”
Stevens’ choice might come as a surprise to those unaware of his career path, because, before joining Sheffield United, the wing-back found himself leading a sometimes nomadic existence in English football’s lower leagues. Notts County, Doncaster Rovers and Northampton Town, where he first met Chris Wilder, were all ports of call as opportunities at Aston Villa proved limited. But it was back home in his native Ireland, at St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers, where Stevens found himself lining-up against some of the greatest names of the modern era.
“In my first season at Shamrock, we ended up drawing Juventus in the Europa League,” he remembers. “They had people like Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Giorgio Chiellini in the squad and they all played. So that wasn’t a bad team was it?
“The next season, was when we qualified for the group stages. We beat Partizan Belgrade to qualify and then got Spurs, Rubin Kazan and PAOK of Greece. It was a brilliant experience but we didn’t go through, unfortunately. As far as learning goes, though, it was absolutely invaluable. To come up against people like that, the really top pro’s, teaches you what they do to reach the level they’re at.”
Stevens is sitting in the Steelphalt Academy’s media suite as he traces his journey to Bramall Lane. The 27-year-old has supposedly finished his round of interviews but the opportunities to talk more football over a cup of tea proves impossible to resist. Wilder cited Stevens’ pace, personality and positional sense as factors behind United decision to sign him from Portsmouth three months ago. Nevertheless, as Stevens sheds light on two trips behind the old iron curtain, another reason becomes clear; the ability, even in the most difficult of circumstances, to beat the odds and perform.
“Belgrade was intense, let’s just say that. I’ve been to some places where the atmosphere is totally different to here. It was so heavy, they weren’t in a good place and were under a lot of pressure from their own fans.
“Russia, in Sovetov, was probably the best I’ve played in. That was with St Pat’s. It was just electric. The crowd were singing non-stop and it was just a different feel. The noise they made was something else, the more they did, the louder it got. Still, it was really, really enjoyable.”
Stevens’ masochistic streak is likely to prove invaluable as United attempt to establish themselves at Championship level following six years in League One. Tomorrow’s visitors to Bramall Lane, former European Cup semi-finalists Derby County, are among the biggest spenders in the division after lavishing nearly £25m on players in the past two seasons alone. Although new manager Gary Rowett has adopted a more prudent approach towards recruitment, the presence of Tom Huddlestone, Curtis Davies and Tom Lawrence in the visitors’ squad confirms the purse strings could hardly be described as taut at Pride Park. Wilder, despite negotiating deals for seven players since leading United to promotion, has utilised around eight per cent of that amount.
Stevens, who arrived on a free transfer from Portsmouth after electing to leave Fratton Park, turned professional with UCD before moving across Dublin; first to St Patrick’s and then Shamrock. His displays for The Hoops convinced Alex McLeish, then manager of Villa, to bring him to England in January 2012 but it was a brief spell at Sixfields, where Wilder was working at the time, which proved the defining moment of his career.
“I wasn’t in a great place when I went there,” Stevens admits. “My head wasn’t right and I was stuck in a rut at Aston Villa. I didn’t show him everything I could do but it was brilliant. I was delighted when he came back in for me again. He made an impression.
“In the short spell I was there, he taught me a new way of playing the game. Him and Knilly (assistant manager Alan Knill) coached me along. He told me what I needed to do with my career.”
As well as resurrecting his partnership with Wilder, joining United, Stevens explains, held another attraction too. Fellow Irishman Daniel Lafferty, previously of Derry City, was a member of the team which cruised to promotion last term and agreed a new long-term contract earlier this year.
“I know Daniel from back home,” he says. “We played against each other a few times and you know what the Irish are like; we always attach ourselves to each other. To be fair, though, all of us here are really good mates and there aren’t any separate groups. That’s a good thing because it means we’ll stick together, no matter what, on and off the pitch.”