He exited Shamrock Rovers to join Hearts for the second half of their Championship-winning campaign knowing promotion to Scotland’s top flight was in the pipeline. Since stepping up, he has been restricted to a bit-part role.
The midfielder, 26, has started just one of Hearts’ seven competitive matches so far this season and featured as a substitute in another four. He spoke to manager Robbie Neilson and sporting director Joe Savage for reassurance that he remains part of the club’s plans.
Patience is the order of the day for McEneff, who admits to a touch of frustration at the current situation. Sweeping Alex Cochrane’s cross past Joe Hart into the Celtic net last week was a timely reminder of his capabilities at the end of a 3-2 Premier Sports Cup defeat.
He is determined to remain professional and focused. Aberdeen visit Tynecastle Park on Sunday, then it’s a trip to Dundee United before a much-anticipated derby with Hibs. These are the games the Irishman came to Scotland for and he is eager for greater involvement.
“I’ve spoken with the gaffer and with Joe,” said McEneff, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I came here in January so I’ve got a long enough contract and I’m well within the plans of the club. It’s just been one of those things where I’ve been out of the team, lads have come in and done well and we’ve been winning games.
“It’s hard to change a winning team sometimes. When I get on the pitch it’s up to me to let my feet do the talking, try to impress the manager and push myself into the starting line-up.
Experience big games
“I wanted to play in the Scottish Premiership, experience the fans and play in these big games. I’ve come off the bench twice now, and at Parkhead you get a proper taste for it. It’s exciting and you want to be involved.
“Aberdeen is a massive game this weekend and the other two coming up are really important as well. I’ve been hearing loads of stories about the Edinburgh derby and how good it is. I want to be involved in these games. With the fans back, it makes it even more exciting.”
With a long season still very much in its infancy, McEneff is aware that Neilson will need most if not all of his first-team players during the weeks and months ahead. That is a degree of comfort as he jostles with Peter Haring, Andy Halliday, Beni Baningime, Finlay Pollock and Aidan Denholm for central midfield berths.
Fans are returning to stadiums and Tynecastle could host its first capacity crowd in almost 18 months this weekend. The prospect is enough to raise goosebumps on most footballers.
“I wanted to play for such a big club with a massive fanbase. I’ve heard stories about how good it is when the place is packed and I’m hoping to experience that on Sunday,” said McEneff.
“You want to play every minute of every game and it can get frustrating when you aren’t playing. There is competition in the squad and the boys have done well. We’ve been winning games so you have to keep your head down and be ready when you get a chance.
“There’s no point sulking. That doesn’t get you anywhere. I’m just working hard to get back into the team. It’s important to stay level-headed because football is never straightforward.
“I haven’t played in a few of the games but I don’t get too low about it. I just come in every day with the same mindset and you need belief in yourself to get back in the team. The most important thing is to be ready.”
The Celtic defeat goes down as a learning experience for McEneff and several of his colleagues. “We probably showed them too much respect and they could have scored more had it not been for big Craigy [Gordon],” he admitted, in reference to the 2-0 half-time scoreline.
“I thought we imposed ourselves better in the second half because we got in about them. There are a few positives we can take.”
For him, scoring the game’s final goal is a significant morale boost. Those dark days and nights inside empty and soulless Championship grounds now seem like a distant memory. McEneff does not intend to forget them altogether, though. They offered valuable lessons about different levels within the Scottish game.
“There has been a contrast in the last few months,” he explained. “I came in January and played in the Championship – physical games against teams that don’t pass the ball as much as Premiership teams would. It was different, especially away from home, so it was tough. The games can feel like 100 miles an hour.
“In the Premiership games I’ve seen and played in, there is a lot more structure. People want to get the ball down and pass it. That’s my way of enjoying football, too. The gaffer and all the boys here want to play that way, getting the ball down and passing it.
“I feel I fit into that style so it’s up to us to impose that style in the Premiership. You learn little things each day, especially with experienced people like Craigy and Stevie Naismith around you.”