March 16th and Darragh Lenihan could have been marking a momentous day in his life and career: it was his 29th birthday for a start, then there was the prospect of a place in Stephen Kenny’s latest squad. Oh, and a horse called Dunboyne was running in the last at Cheltenham. Lenihan’s from there and was on it.
He did at least get to celebrate the first.
Lenihan, however, was omitted from the second and the horse, it came in fourth.
Instead he found himself discussing “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation in young footballers from differing socio-economic backgrounds; the evolving style of Ireland and Middlesbrough under Kenny and Michael Carrick; and watching Kevin Hunt run Bohemians midfield, some of it when Kenny was Bohs manager.
Lenihan was smiling – as is everyone at Middlesbrough.
“It’s exciting,” he says of Boro’s current run, which has them pushing for automatic promotion to the Premier League, and a style of play that last Saturday provoked spontaneous applause.
Lenihan’s assessment extends to a changing Irish squad, one that he would have been in this week but for injury. He is not so injured he cannot play, but Lenihan has been appearing for Boro with injections and the club’s physiotherapists told him he needed 7-10 days of rest to get through the season. Kenny understood; Lenihan remains hopeful for June’s games.
Not that he is assuming a presence in the squad. Experience has led Lenihan to seek balance in his daily work, “to be level-headed.”
Even when it is put to him his absence in Dublin means he stays on three caps, which seems an unfeasibly small number for someone who has been around so long and who is clearly proven, Lenihan responds phlegmatically: “That’s credit to the players in front of me. Hats off to them. I’ve no complaints. I’ve trained with those boys.”
So Lenihan’s senior international career remains two appearances under Martin O’Neill, when he was 24, then last year’s cap under Kenny against Ukraine. But it is not over; someone who saw Glenn Whelan’s goal against Italy in 2009 at Croke Park, retains a quiet passion to play for his country.
And after a decade at Blackburn Rovers, most of it in the Championship but no higher, Lenihan could be a Premier League player by June. “You’re constantly learning,” he says.
It is not a cliche thrown out glibly. Lenihan means it, as will be shown when he soon finishes the Sports Science degree at Manchester Metropolitan University which has been occupying his time away from playing and training.
“I feel there’s many growth areas for me to push my game to the next level,” he says, “especially since the gaffer’s come in. He [Carrick] has definitely raised the bar for me as well as the team. Stephen Kenny, he’s doing the same, trying to play in a similar way. You can say that with both teams, we’re evolving.
“You look at top-level football, Pep Guardiola, he’s set a trend with the Barcelona team. Everyone’s tried to replicate that. It starts with the keeper – the position has come on so much. Years ago, you’d say they were in there to make saves, whereas the position now is about playing. It’s been impressive to see Zack [Steffen] here – he’s obviously played under Guardiola at Man City. Zack’s been very good at helping me develop my own game.”
As Lenihan says, Carrick has altered Boro – and himself – since his arrival in October. Carrick, as understated as Lenihan, says the defensive evolution is “just instruction – what distances we want between players, what’s Darragh’s role when covering certain spaces, in possession what we’re asking him to look for. It’s not always easy.”
On Lenihan the man, Carrick adds: “First and foremost, as a personality, as a character, he’s a really good person. He’s everything you want – desperate to learn, comes in every day wanting to improve, humble, stable. He’s a pleasure to have around. He’s one of the voices in the group and leads by example. As I said, a real pleasure.”
It is little-known that Carrick was briefly at Boro as a boy; it is equally little-known that Lenihan was too – twice. Scouted by the club while playing in midfield for Belvedere at the Milk Cup, Lenihan was first brought to the training ground he sits in at 14, then two years later.
“I really loved it,” he says, “and the reason I didn’t come was I was just finishing my Junior Cert, the equivalent of GCSEs. I’d a contract offer but my Mam and Dad were saying they thought I was a bit young. ‘Have another year of school.’
“That’s what I did, my first year of what would be A-levels. At the end of it Blackburn signed me. I did my Leaving Cert from there.”
A serious back injury at Blackburn stalled his entrance into English football. But Lenihan learned, he mentions “resilience” and says of the waiting and watching: “It gives you drive.”
I think Roy Keane said that training at Man United was harder than some matches, and Michael Carrick would be similar to that
He had done some observing in Dublin anyway: “My old manager at Dunboyne, Ray Duffy, he would take me to Bohemians games and ask me to watch Kevin Hunt, who was centre mid, the captain of Bohs. He’d take me most Fridays, that was my first affiliation with the League of Ireland.”
Today Brexit would ensure Lenihan stayed until 18 and he would gladly accept.
“My wife has asked what I would do if I had to do it again. And I say that I’d probably wait until 19 or 20, 21 maybe. You go over more mature, you can deal with setbacks. Even that thing of going over at 17 and you get paid – that fact alone for a kid is something. You can see why lads who are bored can spiral out of control.
“I say it to the young boys today about this Sports Science degree, it’s good to have that concentration outside football rather than be 100 per cent bogged down in it.
“The degree is with MMU. Bio-mechanics, physiology and psychology would be the three main subjects. I’ve a dissertation to finish. I’m doing ‘Motivation’ – between first-team lads and Academy lads. You’ve got intrinsic motivation and extrinsic and I think everyone has a bit of both. Intrinsic is the joy of doing it and extrinsic is the rewards, financial gains. Some people come from tough backgrounds, don’t have much money, so that’s a motivation for them. Others have had everything growing up and they just do it for the love of the game.
“Going back to what I said about setbacks, it’s definitely helped me develop – and as a person, not only as a player.”
Boro have lost five of Carrick’s 23 games in charge and it is notable that each defeat has been followed by a victory. The frequent references to setbacks are about this perseverance.
“Training is high-level, very tough, the intensity,” Lenihan says. “I think Roy Keane said that training at Man United was harder than some matches, and the gaffer would be similar to that.
“But win, lose or draw, he’s level-headed.”
You can see why Carrick appeals to someone like Lenihan. And vice versa.