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'It was the hallucinations, the heart palpitations... I was ringing Dr Alan Byrne at 5.30am the night of the Finland game'

Jack Byrne reveals the full extent of Covid-19 battle as he opens up on his club future and dealing with international spotlight ahead of today’s FAI Cup final.

Jack Byrne at the club's training ground in Roadstone.
Jack Byrne at the club's training ground in Roadstone.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

TODAY WILL BE a day for glory and heartache in the 100th FAI Cup final.

It is a historic, landmark occasion in the midst of unprecedented times in modern life.

We need only listen to the words of the most high-profile player to take part in Irish football’s showpiece at Aviva Stadium later today to get a sense of the devastating impact of Covid-19.

Jack Byrne, the 24-year-old Republic of Ireland international who is playing the best football of a career that has still not hit the heights his talent can take him to, is in the prime of his life.

So, to hear the Shamrock Rovers playmaker describe the extent to which he was struck down by coronavirus while on Nations League duty for his country in October is more than a little sobering.

“It took me a while to get over it, I still feel the effects sometimes, I am still not fully over it. I feel good, I am getting there, the main thing is I am feeling better now because it floored me for five or six weeks: taste, smell, everything went,” he explained.

“You can deal with that but it was the hallucinations, being stuck in bed for two weeks, the coughing, the heart palpitations, I had to go and get my heart checked out to make sure everything was okay for me to go back and play football and I have to say thanks to Dr Alan Byrne, he was unbelievable.

I was ringing him at 5.30am on the night of the Finland game as I was really not well, I was thinking I might need to go to hospital and Alan was on the phone for the whole time. I had left [the camp] but I took a bad turn on the Wednesday.

“I was okay leading up to it but then two or three days after I could feel it coming on, once it hits you I am out of it… I would recommend the vaccine.”

The Dubliner delivered that message without hyperbole, just cold, hard facts and a rather blunt description of what he went through.

It is to his credit, therefore, that not only was he able to recover, but he also managed to rekindle his fine form for Rovers and keep his place in the Ireland squad last month.

Stephen Kenny sprung him from the bench against Wales and Bulgaria in the Nations League to bring his tally of caps to four, in the process becoming the first League of Ireland player since former Rovers captain Pat Byrne to play in a competitive fixture since 1985. Byrne is active on social media so is not oblivious to the calls for him to get more game time.

jack-byrne-with-ethan-ampadu In action for Ireland against Ethan Ampadu of Wales. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Just don’t mention him in the same breath as Wes Hoolahan. “I try to do the best I can with the opportunities I get. I was frustrated when I used to watch Ireland years ago and Wes was on the bench, because I loved that kind of player, he’d come on and make an impact, do really well and when I was in the Ireland squad training I could see how good a player he really was.

“I don’t want to be in that bracket, ‘the Next Wes, why isn’t he playing?’ Nobody wants to be that player that everyone is talking about [because they’re not playing]. I don’t think it helps me that everyone is saying ‘give Jack a chance’. But at the same time I must be doing something right for people to be saying that.

“I try not to listen to it too much but if I have a third of the Ireland career that Wes Hoolahan had, I’d be over the moon as he was an unbelievable player.”

Byrne’s faith in his own ability has already helped him endure the bleakest of times in his career. It was Rovers who offered him solace in Dublin and, while grateful for the welcoming embrace, it has not diluted his own international aspirations.

“That’s why you want to play football, the more opportunities you get to play the more chances you get to show people that you can create chances or score goals, make goals. That can only benefit me.

“I am working hard to try and… nowadays I think the stigma is gone from League of Ireland players getting called up to the first team squad.

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“I have had four caps since I was here, two competitive games now and people are taking it serious, it’s not just a token gesture when a League of Ireland player gets called up, people are seeing that if you are called up you deserve to be called up, you don’t have to get a move to a Portsmouth or a League One club to get called up,” Byrne, nominated once again for PFA Ireland Player of the Year after collecting the award at the end of last season, adds.

“I just love going and testing myself when I am in the international squad, even better to get on the pitch and test yourself against good teams.

“There were certain moments in some of the [Ireland] games where I could have opened up teams, I was a little bit frustrated that I probably didn’t get a few more minutes but I was still unbelievably proud to get on the pitch and get four caps.

“I just think I feel in my own ability I can affect games, if you are sitting on the bench you can see the way games are going and you have that confidence and belief in yourself that I could have come on and done something, otherwise there’s no point in me being there.

So in my own head I am always thinking I can get on, whether that’s Switzerland or Bulgaria or Denmark or whoever, I am thinking, if I am called upon here I can make an impact, if I wasn’t thinking that way I shouldn’t be anywhere near [the squad].”

The international scene takes a back seat for the next few months with today’s FAI Cup final his sole focus. After that his club future will be top of the agenda.

“Yeah, of course I’ve been thinking about what’s going to happen but it certainly won’t be coming into my head when we’re going into a Cup final,” Byrne insists.

“I’ll be going out there with a group of players who I’ve worked with for two years, who’ve given me everything and who I have given everything to. The manager, the staff, the board who took me here in the first place when I didn’t have that many options.

“There is nothing in my mind about what I’m doing after the Cup final. It’s all about the Cup final and trying to win a Double for the club and for people who have supported me unbelievably over the last two years.

“I just think that would be disrespectful to the club and to this group of players if I was even half thinking about how ‘oh, this [move] is there tomorrow so I don’t really care about the Cup final, if we win, we win, if we lose, we lose’. It’s not like that at all. It’s all on the Cup final. I want to win it.”

chris-shields-and-jack-byrne Byrne battling with Dundalk midfielder Chris Shields. Source: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

Dundalk stand in their way of doing the Double and it will also be a day to renew the burgeoning rivalry with Chris Shields in midfield.

“I like Chris, I like playing against him. I came out the better in the last two times I played against him, the couple of times before that he’d say he came out better, up in Oriel Park last year he was better than me.

“There are two players in this league I like playing against, Keith Buckley (Bohemians) and Chris Shields, they are tough opponents, proper midfield players, they don’t give you a minute, don’t give you a sniff. Keith Buckley is probably the toughest player I ever played against, him and Chris would be the two toughest.

“I relish that battle, if I come out on top or if they come out on top I shake their hand, say ‘well done and I’ll see yiz again’.”

It remains to be seen if Byrne will still be on the League of Ireland scene in 2021.

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