Sheffield United v Derby County: Enda Stevens ready to prove his worth to Blades boss after injury return

This summer, instead of showing new Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic what he could do, Enda Stevens was instead “recovering” from a problem he did not have.

What added insult to the left-back’s actual injury was it could have been dealt with long ago had the expert he consulted spotted it. For a long time Stevens followed a programme to help him get over osteitis-pubis - the only issue being, he did not have it. He had a hernia which needed surgery.

Eventually, it was spotted and dealt with, and a goalscoring return against Southampton in the League Cup on Tuesday means today’s visit of Derby County will be the first Championship game the Republic of Ireland international has had a chance of starting for Jokanovic. Whether he will is another matter. In his eyes, the shirt belongs to Rhys Norrington-Davies, who has stepped up to take his place.

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“I only became aware of it when I had the operation,” says Stevens of his hernia. “I was kind of let down by the specialist, misdiagnosed. I was rehabbing for something that was never going to get better.

“The recovery from a hernia is only two to six weeks so it’s something that could have been done as far back as last season.

“We just didn’t have any answers. To be fair to the staff they did the best they could to help, it was just consistent pain. The specialist didn’t find any hernia (injury) so treated it as osteitis-pubis but that didn’t get rid of the pain. A week or two before the season started I went to get a second opinion. It was a hernia and I had the op.

“You just feel let down because you’re going to these people to try and get the answers. I’m not saying it was his fault, it was a difficult process, but it just needed that second opinion and I got it a bit too late.”

If it was bad news for Stevens, it might not have been the worst thing for his club. That is no slight on a key figure in Sheffield United’s rise from the Championship to ninth in the Premier League but after a miserable relegation the team needed an infusion of players untainted by it - players like Norrington-Davies, an academy product loaned out last season.

JOSTLING FOR POSITION: Enda Stevens is ready to win back his spot in defence after returning from injury. Pictures: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“It just boosts the place to see new faces around,” argues Stevens. “You want to play with them and show them how good you are and they want to show you how good they are.

“You’ve got to keep improving, keep building.

“We’ve got to push each other. Rhys has started the season excellently and it’s his spot, his to lose. I’ve got to keep waiting for my chance. It’s all you can do, work away behind the scenes and keep pushing, and when the opportunity comes, take it.”

The Blades’ season so far has been a case study in the value of refreshing a demoralised squad. Norrington-Davies and loan signing Ben Davies were the only additions until an international break when Morgan Gibbs-White, Robin Olsen and Stevens’s Ireland team-mate Conor Hourihane joined, and youngster Iliman Ndiaye signed the contract holding up his integration into the first team.

EMERGING TALENT: Sheffield United's Rhys Norrington Davies. Picture: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“Morgan has brought a spark, Illy has as well,” says Stevens.

“It lifts the whole spirits of the lads in the team.

“We didn’t want a hangover from last season.”

Billy Sharp, John Fleck and Ben Osborn have already benefited, so there is no reason why Stevens cannot feed of it too.

“As footballers you have to keep improving,” he argues. “Once you’re comfortable things can pass you by and before you know it, you’re out the door.”

Stevens will have to adapt too. He excelled under Chris Wilder as a wing-back in a team where the left-sided centre-back (usually Jack O’Connell) was encouraged to overlap him. In Jokanovic’s 4-2-3-1 the responsibilities differ.

“If you go through the lads, a lot of them have played a good chunk of their careers in a back four,” he stresses. “Rhys will have played a lot there for Stoke, Eags (John Egan) for Brentford and George (Baldock, at Milton Keynes Dons) is the same; Ben Davies played a lot there with Preston. We’ve got an experienced bunch of defenders and we can adapt to both a back four and a back five.”

Whilst Stevens was given important minutes in midweek, it was vital a much-changed side did not let momentum slip. They might have been knocked out of the League Cup, but only on penalties against Premier League opposition.

“It was very important for the lads who haven’t been playing to show what they could do and there were some excellent performances,” says Stevens. “It just brings that boost and that happy mentality. It just looks like lads are enjoying themselves.

“Last season Bramall Lane was empty so it was tough. This season, it’s electrifying, you can see the lads buzzing off it and it just gives you that extra bit of energy and drive. It’s massive for us and thankfully it’s back.”

So too, at last, is Stevens.