JUST a month after bidding farewell to his teenage years, Enda Stevens was doing battle with Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet in the Europa League.
A couple of years later, the Dublin-born wing-back had graduated to the Premier League and the opportunity to tackle the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
Facing such a galaxy of stars so early in a career would, presumably, ensure a player never felt either intimidated or inferior again. Stevens, however, discovered otherwise during his first training session with Sheffield United after joining from Portsmouth on a free transfer during the summer.
“I remember thinking after that first session: ‘I am going to have get up to speed as quickly as possible here or I will be left behind’,” the 27-year-old told The Yorkshire Post ahead of taking on Reading at Bramall Lane today.
“There were so many excellent players here, lads who are so good technically. I just wasn’t expecting it to be such a big step up in terms of the quality and intensity. But it was and I had to be prove myself straight away.
“It took me a while to get used to the level required, probably most of pre-season.”
We could play it safe this season as a newly-promoted club, and just try to counter-attack, snatching 1-0 wins here and there. But that isn’t how the gaffer wants to do it.Sheffield United’s Enda Stephens
His crash-course in what is expected at a club who racked up a century of points in lifting the League One title last term may have come as a shock. But the challenge was tackled head-on, allowing Chris Wilder’s men to reap the benefits during what has been an impressively quick adaptation to life back in the Championship after six years away.
United sit third in the table, just two points adrift of leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers. A number of big scalps have already been claimed, most notably Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday, to ensure the Blades will today host last May’s beaten play-off finalists in buoyant mood.
“The Championship is tough but enjoyable,” added Stevens, whose career began in his native Ireland with St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers. “It is also exciting.
“Each game brings a different challenge and I love that. I also love how our game-plan stays the same, regardless of who we play. The gaffer wants us to attack. We get in the faces of the opposition and make it uncomfortable for them.
“We could play it safe this season as a newly-promoted club, and just try to counter-attack, snatching 1-0 wins here and there. But that isn’t how the gaffer wants to do it.
“I know we have won a few 1-0s but those were games when we could have scored a lot more. The fans appreciate how attack-minded we are and they know each week they will see a decent game.”
Stevens’s impressive forays down the flank have allowed Wilder to be so attack-minded. It is an ability he honed back home, first in the League of Ireland and then in European competition.
Partizan Belgrade, Spurs and Rubin Kazan were just three of the teams he faced in Shamrock colours, though it is the night that Del Piero, Trezeguet et al helped Juventus to victory at the Tallaght Stadium that understandably stands out.
A move to Villa Park followed but, after several promising early performances, his career unexpectedly stalled.
Loan spells to Doncaster Rovers, Notts County and Northampton Town followed before Stevens got back on track at Portsmouth.
Last season brought not only a League Two title medal but also a place in the PFA Team of the Year after contributing seven assists as Paul Cook’s men grabbed top spot on the final day.
“We only really got going in January,” said Stevens when asked about his first career promotion. “The fans didn’t want play-offs after what had happened the previous year (when the club lost to Plymouth in the semi-finals).
“They wanted automatic and voiced that opinion when we were struggling. I remember playing at Crewe at home (on March 4) and losing 1-0. That was the low point of the season, as the fans really got on our case. The thing was we couldn’t argue with them because they were right.
“But we turned it round and went up, in the end.”
Stevens, wanting to test himself at a higher level than the third tier, rejected a new contract at Fratton Park in favour of joining the Blades. It is a move he has not regretted.
“It was a mixture of things that made me come here,” added the former Republic of Ireland Under-21s international. “The club, the gaffer, the league, the team – Sheffield United felt a perfect fit.
“The more I have got to know about things here, the more confident I feel (about the future) and, to me, our position is not a surprise. There is a lot of quality here – as I found out at that first training session.
“There are some excellent players here, which is something that can get overlooked when everyone is talking about how hard we all work.
“Technically, I look at lads like (John) Fleck and (Paul) Coutts in the middle of the park and they are probably the best partnership I have come across. Then there is young David Brooks, who looks like he has been playing first-team football for years.
“He came in and breezes past players. Then there is Mark Duffy. I played with ‘Duffs’ at Doncaster so knew what he was about. Technically, he is all there as well.
“What ‘Duffs’ has done is take his form from last season into this one – which is what a lot of the lads have done. Obviously, I wasn’t here last season but I don’t think too much has changed in terms of how the team plays. It is all about momentum.”