Lille: While Robbie Brady stole the headlines with his dramatic winning goal against Italy at Euro 2016, his childhood friend Jeff Hendrick again displayed his importance to the Republic of Ireland in that game.
The 24-year-old Derby County midfielder put in another superb shift from his position wide on the right, earning rave reviews in French sports daily L’Equipe as he helped Ireland through to a last-16 tie against the hosts.
“Jeff has been excellent for us — really, really excellent — and he continues to improve which is delightful,” said manager Martin O’Neill after the historic 1-0 win in Lille that saw the Irish reach the knockout phase of a European Championship for the first time.
Hendrick was already outstanding in the opening 1-1 draw with Sweden, coming close to scoring on more than one occasion.
After Wednesday’s game he cried tears of joy and later clutched a slice of pizza and a bottle of beer as he stood in the mixed zone at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy and bathed in the glory of one of his country’s finest victories.
Hendrick, who hails from the northside of Dublin, was born 17 days apart from Brady in January 1992 and the duo have known each other from the age of six, when they began playing for the St Kevin’s Boys Club.
“We played in every team possible at international level and all the way up to the seniors. It’s not every day that something like this happens, it’s great to play on a big stage,” said Brady before the European Championship started.
Like many talented young players in Ireland, Hendrick — described as a “quiet lad” by one of his former mentors — was just a trainee when he moved across the sea to England and joined Derby.
He made his debut there as a 19-year-old under Nigel Clough and was voted the club’s young player of the year in 2012.
His international bow came in 2013 against Poland and he has hardly looked back since, with Wednesday’s game his 24th appearance in the green shirt.
– ‘Tottenham wouldn’t listen’ -Despite being under contract at second-tier side Derby until 2018, his performances will have alerted clubs in the Premier League and perhaps further afield as well.
Indeed Italian Marco Tardelli, who was the Ireland assistant coach when Hendrick made his international debut, has said he tried to convince teams in Serie A to sign him, “but maybe he wasn’t expensive enough”.
On Wednesday night Hendrick’s teammate Robbie Keane added: “I told Tottenham to buy him four years ago and they wouldn’t listen to me.
“He’s been brilliant the last few games. I can’t see anyone (better) apart from (Andres) Iniesta and people like that in terms of how they control the game because they have possession.
“But he gets up and down, gets his tackles in, keeps the ball when he can, keeps his composure and then also tries to score goals for the team. He’s been top drawer.”
Hendrick is having to put off-field issues to one side in France — he has been sent for trial in relation to an incident in Dublin in 2013 that left a man with a fractured jaw.
However, Sunday’s clash with France in Lyon will offer him another opportunity to showcase his ability on the pitch as Ireland bid to pull off one of the biggest ever shocks in the history of the competition.
“I’m just trying to do my best and improve every game,” said Hendrick after the Italy encounter.
“It was a good game and a good challenge. I like playing against the top countries.
“We’ve got to do our homework on France and get ourselves ready. The games come quickly but we’re looking forward to it.”