How Aaron McEneff became the box-to-box midfielder Hearts desperately wanted

Aaron McEneff impressed despite the 1-1 draw with Greenock Morton. Picture: SNS
Aaron McEneff impressed despite the 1-1 draw with Greenock Morton. Picture: SNS

There was a long way to travel to the opposition box. After all the Aviva Stadium pitch is pretty long. Longer than Hampden Park, in fact. The Hearts new boy only had one thing in his mind, however, get the ball up the park ASAP.

He drove forward between two opponents before playing a pass into the feet of a team-mate who shifted it wide to another colleague. McEneff hadn’t stopped running. He burst past another two players, his third-man run allowing him to collect possession once more.

Having been just outside his own box, in fewer than ten seconds he was bearing down on the Dundalk box. In extra-time.

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Despite having made such a lung-busting run in extra-time, he still had the composure to slide a pass between two opponents to create a chance for a team-mate which was passed up.

Ambition and verticality

Robbie Neilson and the club’s sporting director Joe Savage will have known about these qualities prior to that cup final last December. Even still, their eyes would have lit up, a massive tick in terms of the profile required in the Hearts midfield.

Such ambition, such verticality, such get up and go has been missing too often this season in the Tynecastle squad.

McEneff getting stuck in against AC Milan for Shamrock Rovers. Picture: Getty

Starting his first game since that clash with Dundalk, which eventually ended in a 4-2 defeat, McEneff wasted little time in making himself known with one of those trademark third-man runs in the 1-1 draw with Greenock Morton.

There was a little over four minutes on the clock when the eagle-eyed 25-year-old donned his invisibility cloak to sneak in behind the visiting midfield, exploit the gap in the defence, collect a Naismith pass and force Aidan McAdams into a save.

Positive, penetrative and powerful.

« Them types of runs forward, third-man runs off the back of people, drifting into the box, sometimes coming in and starting the play, playing forward,” Aaron McEneff said as he explained his game to the Evening News.

The midfielder had a trial with St Mirren in 2015. Picture: SNS

“All-round box-to-box midfielder, that’s been my game now for a number years.

« Realistically, I am supposed to be in pre-season now, so that match fitness and match sharpness will come.

« I feel generally fit, Saturday was really good. Personally I maybe felt I blew up near the end but I was still trying to give my all for the team but over the coming weeks I will get fitter and stronger.

He added: « In extra-time in the cup final that’s what I’m about. I like to get up and down the pitch and get involved with most things which are going on. I think I can bring that to this team.”

Origin story

It wasn’t until 2019 when that side of his game was fully explored and developed.

“I was either one of the deep ones or one of the ones behind the striker at that sort of age,” he said.

“Even at Derry City I was either one or the other. Then I went to Shamrock Rovers and the staff there worked with me and helped me become more of an all-round midfielder.

« I’ve just developed as the years have gone on.”

Feeling wanted

Hearts haven’t only brought in a player with the right talent profile, but also someone with an attitude and mindset to match.

After leaving Spurs, he could have stayed in England and knocked around the lower leagues, while there was also a trial at St Mirren in 2015. But McEneff opted for the “reset button”.

He had to take a decision that some may have perceived to be a step back to propel forward. He returned home and joined Derry City. But it was a place where he found what all players are searching for: to feel wanted.

« After the rejection I went to a few clubs on trial but just got fed up as a young lad bouncing from place to place not really feeling wanted, you are just there as a number,” he said.

« It was important just to go back home and get the support of my family, be around them all the time. I was playing for my hometown team as well. That helped and the manager wanted me to come in and play.

« When I did sign there it took me six months to get up to speed of the league and the game. From that I kicked on. Everybody who plays football wants to keep learning and keep improving.

“I went to St Mirren for around a week. Played a game against Inverness. It went alright but I didn’t feel wanted at that time. I didn’t feel it was the right fit either.

« I just decided to go back home that week and actually went in training with Derry City with not much intention to sign but the manager just asked me and thought ‘let me get myself settled here’, people around me that are going to help me.”

Tynecastle opportunity

To land McEneff, Hearts did something not many clubs in Scotland are capable of, parting with a six-figure fee.

For the player it was that feeling of being wanted which convinced him to move to a city he is familiar with, his girlfriend having studied in the city for four years.

“In terms of price tag I don’t think too much about that,” he said. “That’s between the two clubs.

« I knew the club really wanted me in in this window. You know that feeling of being wanted somewhere, when you get that somewhere you have to go and take that opportunity.

« That’s why I’ve chosen to do so and I’ve enjoyed it so far.”

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How Aaron McEneff became the box-to-box midfielder Hearts desperately wanted
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