Fifty cap milestone for Jeff Hendrick who retains his 2020 Euro vision
JEFF Hendrick will win his 50th cap for the Republic of Ireland against Switzerland tomorrow night. Six years on from his international debut, the half-century is a milestone the Burnley midfielder wants to build but one of the first things he’ll check when he leaves the Aviva pitch is whether he covered every blade of grass on it.
He literally has a running battle with James McClean over whose stats are the best and while their rivalry is “just a bit of fun” it is an indication of their intense workrate in the green jersey.
“I work hard, I get the running stats from every game and me and James are trying to beat each other; see who’s running more,” explained Hendrick.
“It’s close. He just beat me in Gibraltar away, I beat him Georgia at home and I haven’t looked at the stats there from the other Gibraltar game. It’s just a bit of fun. James prides himself on training really hard.”
Both could top the 12 kilometre mark tomorrow night as the Boys in Green bid to maintain their lead at the top of Group D. After four games the Republic have 10 points (including home and away wins over Gibraltar). Denmark are five points behind with Switzerland six adrift but they have played three and two games respectively so far.
The Republic could do with a goal or two from midfield against the Swiss but for a player of his class Hendrick’s return – two goals in 49 games – is disappointing. His first goal was in Serbia back in 2016, the other Ireland’s only goal against Gibraltar in March.
“I’ve said it before, I do want to be scoring more goals, I want to be getting into them positions,” said the Dubliner.
“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. I’ve come close a good few times. It can be tough.
“I’ve spent a lot of games, I’d say for the 10 games from 30 caps on, 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.
“I do know football but it wasn’t natural for me to play in those big games in those positions. “Maybe by trying to adapt and just do well for the team, it was taking my concentration on getting into the box and scoring goals away from me.
“But now the last few games, I think you can see that I’m playing in my position.
“I’m told to break the box, get in and score goals. The staff here know I can score, they’ve seen me at club level through the years. I’m happy with that and it’s something I want to do.”
His lack of goals has led to accusations of a lack of effort from impatient fans who feel he is not the same player as the elegant attacking midfielder who came so close to scoring against Sweden and Italy at Euro 2016.
“I think obviously the criticism is fine - everyone is going to criticise you,” he says.
“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.
“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.”
Since the last Euros, the Republic have had to grind out results to stay afloat. Managers Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have been replaced by Mick McCarthy but goals (five, including an OG in four games) have been in short supply in the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
“I think the (2016) Euros was such a high for everyone and the performance levels, I think, were quite high from the whole squad,” Hendrick explained.
“A few of the lads then left the squad after that and we had some injuries.
“A couple of months after the Euros we probably had games where, from the starting 11 at the Euros there were maybe four or five of us left.
“So it was a completely new team and I don’t think I saw that being mentioned many times - that it was a new team starting together.
“At the end of the day we do have a few days in camp together and that’s it. 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.”
He is out of contract at Burnley next year and manager Sean Dyce hasn’t picked him in the starting line-up for any of the club’s four Premier League games. His only appearance came as a sub in the 1-1- draw against Wolves.
“It's not a worry for me,” said Hendrick.
“The main thing is to play games here. My goals this season is to qualify for my country, that would be massive for me and then try to get into the Burnley team.
“To be fair to the manager at club level we had a brutal first half of the season last year and I think we had 11 or 12 points and were right in the mixer to go down.
“But he changed it around 4-4-2 and stuck with the same players. The lads who kept us up, he's been loyal to them and stuck with them this year.
“I played on the right last year, there were a lot of injuries to our wingers but he has his wingers back now and he's stuck with them and they have started the season well with a couple of good results. I have to stay patient and make sure I'm ready and that's what I'm doing.”
Despite his lack of game time, he feels he is in good shape for tomorrow night and manager Mick McCarthy – Hendrick's third boss since Giovanni Trapattoni gave him his debut against Poland in 2013 – agrees.
“When it came to pre-season I probably played the most minutes out of any Burnley player,” he says.
“I played in every game, I was flying with that. I didn't start the first couple of (league) games but I was working hard doing extras trying to get into the team.
“Then I played a reserve game, 10 of us not playing played in it and got a full 90 minutes. Then I got 90 against Sunderland and with all the extra running I'm confident that I'm fully fit and ready to go.”