"He lost his way a little bit" - Jeff Hendrick back, and back to his best
Back to his best.
Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady divide a lot of opinions, here in Ireland.
While both midfielders have avid backers, there is also a vocal cohort that feel they very often don't reach their potential. Whenever that happens, they are not shy about letting everyone know.
Perhaps what has so many invested in the fates of Brady and Hendrick is we all know what they can do on their best days. Both players showed us they could mix it with the best at Euro 2016. Many hoped that was the launchpad more than the peak.
At times, though, it feels like their best days are behind them. Both are only 29.
Brady is currently without a club after seeing out his Burnley contract and moving into free agency in the summer. Through injury and illness, Hendrick was struggling to get regular starts for Newcastle United. Stephen Kenny was still using Hendrick but did not seem convinced.
Dating back to even before Euro 2016, there was hope that Hendrick would be a midfielder that drove forward and regularly got on the score-sheet. The player himself has given plenty of interviews where he acknowledged that was his aim.
We have seen enough games over the past few years, for club and country, to admit Hendrick is better suited as a distributor and to break up play - emphasis on the 'centre' midfield. Sure, he can still get forward every now and then, but it is best not to pin your hopes to him making Lampardian dashes into the box.
Stephen Kenny took a good look at Hendrick in that No.10 role that Wes Hoolahan used to revel in [when given a chance]. He tried it for a few games but it did not work. The nadir was the 1-0 defeat to Finland, when we wrote:
"From watching Hendrick play, since 2016, he is clearly more comfortable as the prompter and prodder. He is not our No.10 and he must know that too. In his past five seasons, Hendrick has scored 12 goals and made nine assists. He has scored one international goal since 2016 and it was in the abhorrent 1-0 soul-tester against Gibraltar. That is the return of a sitting centre midfielder, not the guy who is the driving force for his team's attack."
Kenny parked that notion and we saw Hendrick getting back to his best in the tough away loss to Portugal and home draw with Serbia. He sat back with Josh Cullen and worked his arse off around the centre of the park
Against Qatar, afforded that extra beat or two of time on the ball, he looked a world-beater. This is the difference at the top end of the game. Qatar did not press as well as most half decent international sides and made Hendrick and Conor Hourihane look like Andrés Iniesta and Xavi.
Hendrick has always been capable of threading balls through narrow gaps and seemingly impregnable screens. Give him that extra second to pick his pass and he'll kill you. Just look at that assist for Callum Robinson's hat-trick:
The ball from Hendrick 🤩
The finish from Robinson🔥pic.twitter.com/7Vl7e7nqMz
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) October 12, 2021
"People often say to me, 'I don't see him doing anything, what does he do?'" said Brian Kerr, over on Virgin Media. "Tonight, we see what he can do when gets ball and has a bit of time."
Hendrick played the full 90 against Qatar as Ireland won successive games for the first time under Stephen Kenny and lifted spirits ahead of their final qualifiers against Luxembourg and Portugal.
The Ireland boss was asked about Hendrick's performance and gave a brief insight to what the player himself has been going through over the past 18 months. He told RTÉ:
"He deserves credit himself. Jeff Hendrick, in the last few games, has been outstanding, in terms of his all-round game.
"He lost his way a little bit; confidence, maybe; I'm not sure. But his performances in the last couple of windows have been excellent. He really has all the attributes of an all-round midfield player. He did very, very well and, if he brings more than that, he can only get better. I thought he was outstanding."
Asked, later on in the press briefing, about Hendrick's return to form, Kenny said, "It really is dramatic.
"Jeff went through a period when things weren’t happening for him. He was outstanding.. His energy, vision and first touch.. The two players in midfield suits him. That was one of the best games I have ever seen him play."
61 caps into his Ireland career, we may have finally figured it out with Jeff Hendrick. Get him in the centre of the pitch and get him an extra body in there to help out.
Now, for Project Brady...