Aaron McEneff learned from Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen at Spurs but feels Hearts can spark his Republic of Ireland dream
He still recalls the day Tottenham Hotspur released him as a 19-year-old. It motivated him to earn another chance in British football and replicate the international superstars who were once his team-mates in London.
McEneff left Shamrock Rovers on Monday to sign a two-and-a-half-year contract with Hearts after rebuilding his career in his native Ireland. He knows Edinburgh well because partner Ellen studied there for four years, so he is fully aware of the opportunity at Tynecastle Park.
The energetic midfielder was called into Stephen Kenny’s Republic of Ireland squad last November and harbours a burning aspiration to be there again for next month’s World Cup qualifiers.
His international ambitions are clear in conversation. At 25, he is a good age and believes Hearts can help him realise his dream – starting tonight away at Ayr United.
“It definitely puts me in the shop window for the international side. There are games straight away in March and Hearts have games starting from tonight, so I’ve got the opportunity to get noticed,” he said.
“All I can do is work hard, play well and then it’s up to the manager to make his decision. It was a proud moment for me to get called up to the international squad – a dream come true – and I’ll never stop striving to get that first cap.
“I thought I did well during the training and it was a good group to come into. There were some familiar faces that I knew and I tried to do my bit. Ultimately, everything will fall into place if I do well.
“I know Stephen Kenny from his time at Dundalk. He’s had great success there and he likes to play a good style of football, which would suit my game.
“Trying to break into the international team, there's only one way you can do that and that's performing at club level. That's why my focus is fully on being at Hearts now, working hard and trying to get myself in the team.”
There are plenty internationalists around him at Riccarton, although perhaps not quite with the same reputation as those from the Tottenham days.
“I was injured in the last year of my contract there,” recalled McEneff. “It was quite a long injury and obviously you had other lads progressing like Josh Onomah and Harry Winks, who's playing in the first team now.
“They just called me in and said: ‘Look, we're going to let you go.’ You kind of see it coming when you haven't played in a while but when it actually happens, it's tough to take as a young boy.
“I went on a few trials but I really needed to go back home, press the reset button and refocus on myself first as a person, get my head right and then build it from there. I based it off my hard work first and took it from there. The best thing that I could have done at that time was move home.
“Being over in London at 17, it's excellent with the bright lights, playing for a big club and the buzz is good. Then you get setbacks and it’s hard when you've got no family there to support you.
“It can be tough for young lads moving away but it was a good football education. The coaches I worked under were top notch: Tim Sherwood, Chris Ramsey, John McDermott, Kieran McKenna who is at Manchester United now, and Matt Wells who is Fulham assistant.
“I trained quite a lot with the first team in my second year and, as you get used to the standard, it can only be good for you.”
Certainly when some of Europe’s most recognisable footballers are running around. “There was Christian Eriksen, Moussa Dembele was really good at that time, Jan Vertonghen.
“Harry Kane was out on loan then came back and we were playing in the Under-21s together, then he took off completely. Spurs are always going to have quality players and you try and put wee bits into your own game.”
McEneff knows what he is getting into now. He’s completed a proper apprenticeship at Derry City and Shamrock whilst keeping a close eye on Scottish football.
“My partner went to Edinburgh University for four years so I’ve been over here many times,” he said. “Her sister and her auntie live in Edinburgh too, so we have that support. That will help us settle and we actually have a baby on the way in May. Those family connections will come in handy.
“I’ve been to Tynecastle once and I’ve been to Parkhead to watch Celtic play but, beyond that, I also watch a lot of Scottish football on TV.
“I know how passionate the fans are and, although there are no fans in grounds at the minute, hopefully we can soon get fans back in and the atmosphere at Tynecastle will be brilliant to experience.”
From the comfort of their own sofas, those supporters are waiting to see McEneff’s own dynamic brand of midfield play.
“I know Hearts have been doing well and coming into a winning team will be a good thing. The group is confident and, for myself, it’s about working hard and trying to force myself into the manager’s plans. I think I can bring energy, work ethic and goals to the group.”