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'I never really had off-the-field issues. It was more boredom'

Jack Byrne on the highs and lows of his career so far ahead of a potential Ireland debut against Bulgaria.

Jack Byrne pictured speaking at a pre-match press conference.
Jack Byrne pictured speaking at a pre-match press conference.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“EVERYBODY’S ROUTE IS different.” Jack Byrne makes this remark more than once when speaking to the media ahead of Ireland’s match with Bulgaria tonight.

The 23-year-old Shamrock Rovers midfielder could well make his international debut this evening, and his excitement is palpable.

“It would be a dream come true if it did happen. Hopefully, I’d do myself justice. It’d be an unbelievable honour and probably the proudest day of my life,” he says, when asked about the prospect of representing his country at senior level.

Byrne, though, would be forgiven for expecting the opportunity to represent the Boys in Green to have come sooner than now.

It is over three years since he was first invited to train with the Ireland squad — linking up with Martin O’Neill’s side in March 2016. At the time, he was still on the books at Manchester City and earning rave reviews during a successful season-long loan spell at Dutch top-flight side Cambuur, hitting four goals in 27 Eredivisie appearances.

Since then though, the Dubliner had a few transfers that ultimately didn’t work out. After his stock had risen at Cambuur, he followed it up with another loan move to Blackburn. With the side battling relegation though, manager Owen Coyle appeared reluctant to place his faith in a youngster who was unproven at that level. Consequently, he made just four appearances, with an initial season-long loan brought to a halt in January 2017.

Later that month, Byrne left Man City and joined Wigan on a permanent deal. It seemed a repeat of the Blackburn experience, however, and this time, Byrne made just two appearances for another relegation-bound Championship side.

The starlet’s next loan move, though, would initially prove altogether more successful. He linked up with Oldham, and ended the 2016-17 campaign with 22 appearances and four goals. He signed on a permanent deal the following season and became a fan favourite at the club, making another 18 appearances in the 2017-18 campaign. All appeared to be going well, until the player was suddenly suspended by his team.

“It’s been an ongoing saga. Jack has breached a couple of discipline rules and is no longer training with the first team squad. He’s training with the youth team for the foreseeable future,” said manager Frankie Bunn at the time.

“I can’t really say anything on the matter. The club don’t want me to. But my conscience is clear, 100%,” Byrne said in an interview with The National, after his release from Oldham had been confirmed.

I think most people [down there] know what went on. They got relegated, I was probably one of the higher earners and they needed me to go.

“I needed to go as well to further my career. That was all it was; there wasn’t anything else to it. But it probably could have been handled a little bit better.”

A subsequent short spell at Kilmarnock was similarly disappointing. He played just five league matches for the top-flight Scottish side and struggled to win a place in a midfield that included former UCD player Gary Dicker and Dubliner Alan Power.

Last December, Byrne’s move back home to Shamrock Rovers was confirmed. Since then, he has thrived, helping the club mount a title bid and scoring seven goals in the league so far this season. Having initially begun life in a deeper role, sometimes on the right-hand side of midfield, in recent times, Byrne has played more centrally as a number 10. Two stunning goals against Waterford last month consolidated the belief that it was an astute move on Stephen Bradley’s part.

Mick McCarthy has been among those impressed by the player’s recent exploits. He was selected for the final squad to face Gibraltar and Georgia last March, and was recalled for the upcoming games after some more eye-catching displays with the Hoops.

You get the sense, though, that Byrne still has some way to go to fully convince McCarthy that he is ready to regularly compete at this level. 

Last Friday, as his club team were beating Galway to qualify for the FAI Cup semi-finals, Byrne was the unfortunate one player to be left out of Ireland’s matchday squad versus Switzerland.

“I was disappointed, but I’m obviously a fan, first and foremost, of the Irish team,” he says. “It was an unbelievable moment to be involved in such a big game. To be in the dressing room before, training all week, and in the dressing room after, seeing how happy everybody was, it gave me a good incentive to try to do well and hopefully play for Ireland.”

The midfielder acknowledges himself that he has work to do if he wants to be involved more regularly at this level, but insists he does not feel inferior to other squad members in anyway.

The lads have made me feel a part of it,” he explains. “I respect that and they’ve been giving me advice and stuff — same as the manager and Terry Connor have been giving me advice, ‘try this and that’. I don’t feel out of place because everybody has been so good to me.

“Although you want to do well, I wouldn’t be putting too much pressure on myself or expecting too much from myself. I’ll just go out and try to enjoy it.”

Should Byrne get capped tonight, he would become the third player in the current Shamrock Rovers squad to earn Republic of Ireland recognition, after Graham Burke and Joey O’Brien, while two other team-mates — Alan Mannus and Daniel Lafferty — have represented Northern Ireland on a number of occasions at senior level.

Byrne believes more players in the league could follow in his footsteps, but stops short of agreeing when it is suggested that he is in the best form of his career currently.

“It’s a tough one. I think I’m getting a lot of exposure now because of the European games. The [Irish] media go to the games in Tallaght a lot and I’m obviously doing well in the public eye. They can obviously write about it or whatever.

“I feel as if I played good football wherever I’ve been at. Sometimes my face didn’t fit in certain places. That’s fine. That’s football. You move on and take it on the chin, dust yourself down and go again. At the moment, I’m really enjoying myself — the coaching staff around me, family around me, good people around me. So I’m just trying to work hard and keep my head down.”

mick-mccarthy Mick McCarthy has been impressed by Jack Byrne's League of Ireland form. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Asked whether he has made any adjustments in recent times, Byrne adds: “I never really had off-the-field issues. It was more boredom and trying to fill time. It’s a lot easier when you’re at home and you’re around your family. You can just go for a coffee, go out and chat. I go out with the young lad and my sister. My sister’s up the road. You kill time better. It’s just easier to fill the days now. Things are going well and I think it’s showing on the pitch.”

The League of Ireland star also played down suggestions that he would ultimately need to move back to England in order to break into the Irish starting XI.

I don’t see it as just being England. I played in the top division in Holland. That’s what got me invited to train with the senior team in the first place. I don’t see it as England or nothing. If the opportunity comes up, it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be in England. I’m just seeing where it takes me. I understand the lads here [in the Ireland camp] are playing at a much higher level than I am. They don’t make you feel that way when I’m in here and back in the squad. Without Shamrock Rovers, I don’t think I would be in the squad.”

And does Byrne see himself remaining with the League of Ireland club next season?

“I don’t see it as a negative if I am. If somebody came in and they spoke to Rovers and they wanted me to go or whatever, it would have to be right for me at that stage.

“But I’m not even thinking about it. I love the club, I love playing for the club, the manager there has been unbelievable for me, Stephen McPhail, Glenn Cronin.

“These kind of people around me have been great to me, so it would be disrespectful for me to sit here and talk about a move because to be honest, I’m not even thinking about that.

“Looking at the likes of Conor Hourihane, who dropped down the leagues and worked his way back up, he’s now playing in the Premier League.

“A lot of the players in the squad have played in the League of Ireland as well, so everybody’s route is different.

“I’m working my way back to hopefully get to a good level soon, and I feel as if I’m on the right track.”

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Paul Fennessy

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