Sheffield United: Enda Stevens reveals the moment he discovered football dreams can come true
It was nearly two years ago, inside a small but perfectly appointed training centre on the outskirts of Marbella, when Enda Stevens realised dreams really do come true.
Surrounded by scrubland and approached via a long gravel track, Sheffield United decided the secluded location meant it was the perfect place to prepare for their return to the Championship following six long seasons in League One. As it turned out, AFC Bournemouth had been seduced by the complex's location too. So Chris Wilder's squad spent the next seven days rubbing shoulders with players who, despite starting their careers in the backwaters of English football, were competing and succeeding at the highest level.
"The proof is in what Bournemouth have done," remembers Stevens, who joined United from Portsmouth during their title-winning celebrations. "The manager talked a lot about them back then, where they'd come from and all that. He still does in fact. Their lads came up through the divisions and then showed what they can do when they got to the top. So we'll be looking to do what they've done. We'll be looking to be the next Bournemouth I suppose."
Twenty-three months and another promotion later, United have an opportunity to do exactly that. Last season's second placed finish, which saw them out-perform a number of supposedly better-equipped clubs, means a team whose star names arrived from places like Coventry City and Blackpool, will soon be lining-up against some of the biggest clubs in the game. It therefore seems fitting that, when the Premier League fixture list was published last week, United were paired with Bournemouth on the opening weekend of the campaign.
"It is a similar story to us," Stevens says, drawing the inevitable comparisons between United's progress and the journey taken by Eddie Howe's team. "They took some of their players from League Two and most of them from League One and took them all the way to the Premier League and have retained their league status and that gave them the ability to bring in young talent and spend the money.
"That is obviously something we see similarities with and hopefully, we can go on to replicate what they have achieved."
Stevens is seated behind a table inside the Legends of the Lane suite as he charts United's rise under Wilder and identifies the challenges they will face next term. The choice of venue is fitting, given that the 28-year-old and his colleagues wrote their own names into Bramall Lane's history books when they achieved top-flight status before the third anniversary of the manager's appointment. Despite enjoying a brief taste of the big league when he was signed by Aston Villa after impressing back home in Ireland, Stevens spent the majority of his time in the Midlands being farmed-out on loan before heading to Fratton Park. It was there, under Wilder's good friend Paul Cook, where he first began to realise the potential which had earned him a move to the West Midlands.
"Everyone has their own story," Stevens says. "Everyone has their own way of getting to where they want to be. it's up to a player to create their own career path. Some of us have had to start at the bottom. But every player brings their own experience to the team. That stands us in good stead."
"It is just down to hard work and belief," he continues. "I went down to Portsmouth and worked under a good manager in Paul Cook who got me playing good football and then I had the opportunity to come here under Chris Wilder and (assistant manager) Alan Knill and my career has just kicked on an awful lot. Hopefully it can continue."
Because of the journeys they have taken, many of those tasked with analysing United's achievements have focused on determination and character. But those qualities only go part of the way towards explaining why financial heavyweights such as Aston Villa, Leeds and West Bromwich Albion were left trailing in their slipstream when the race for top-flight football began in earnest. Indeed, focusing purely on personality traits does little justice to the talent which exists within United's ranks. Labelling them as 'Old School' also betrays a lack of understanding - or proper research - about Wilder's methods.
"The talent though, that can get overlooked," Stevens admits. "Our brand of football really excites a lot of people. I don't think there's going to be much changing of the approach.
"There's something unique about us, in terms of how we play. Obviously we're going to be coming up against better teams and we're a possession based team. So we'll have to work hard on keeping the ball and creating chances."
Thursday's unveiling of the Premier League schedule provoked plenty of excitement among coaching staff, supporters and players alike. But the arrival of his new baby daughter Bella Elaine, coupled with his Republic of Ireland commitments, meant it passed Stevens by.
"I've not had much chance to be a dad yet. I'm looking forward to that," the wing-back admits, after starting the recent European Championship qualifiers against Gibraltar and Denmark. "I was in bed and woke up with a load of messages on my phone, from friends and family wanting to come to certain games. I'm more focused on some rest at the moment. Then, when we get on the training pitch again, that's when I'll feel it."
"I saw a picture leaked on social media, our game turned out to be true. It wasn't one, the first game, I really looked at because of that. I looked for other teams, the top ones and who we had over Christmas."
United face Liverpool and Manchester City over the festive period but Stevens adds: "I don't know, it's a difficult question to ask because nothing's got started yet - these teams can go out and by all these players and you wouldn't know what they're going to do.
"I'm just going to focus on us. We're going to have a gameplan and we're going to be fit enough."
After a pausing briefly to enjoy Sheffield United's promotion celebrations, Enda Stevens climbed straight back onboard the football merry-go-round after being selected for the Republic of Ireland's European Championship qualifiers against Denmark and Gibraltar, writes James Shield.
Little wonder then, after returning to South Yorkshire following international duty, the defender has cleared his diary in order to spend time with his family, including new baby Bella Elaine.
"I had a bit of celebration obviously with the (Las) Vegas trip, so I got that out of the system and focused on the football again and I've had three great weeks away with Ireland," Stevens says, after joking he was surprised "nobody died" during United's visit to North America.
"We picked up two good results and we're top of the table in the group stage going into September.
"I'll just clear my head now for about 10 days, just forget all about football and start to slowly tick over to get ready for pre-season."
Ireland, as Stevens reminds, are in pole position to qualify for next year's finals after taking four points from their last two games. A draw in Copenhagen, followed by a 2-0 victory over Julio César Ribas' side, has left them five points ahead of the second-placed Danes ahead of this Autumn's round of fixtures.
John Egan and David McGoldrick also featured in Mick McCarthy's squad, together with former United loanee Scott Hogan.
"I roomed with John while we were away," Stevens adds. "He's never stopped singing about what we (United) have done. He loves to sing, whether it's the morning, afternoon or whatever. He's been signing all the time."