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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 26 May, 2020

Could Jack Byrne become Ireland's next divisive creative player?

The Shamrock Rovers star impressed in a friendly against Bulgaria on Tuesday.

Jack Byrne made his Ireland debut during the week.
Jack Byrne made his Ireland debut during the week.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

VIRTUALLY EVERY IRELAND manager in modern times has had that one elusive player.

It has been the case ever since the Boys in Green adopted a different approach under Jack Charlton, changing from the patient, technically accomplished play that was a feature of Irish teams under both Eoin Hand and John Giles, to a more pragmatic route-one brand of football.

Since then, with occasional exceptions, Irish football has been largely associated with physicality and long balls. Even technically gifted players like Robbie Keane and Damien Duff were invariably shoehorned into teams that routinely were content to spend much of the game without the ball against the better sides in international football.

There has, though, usually been one player that has missed out partially as a result of the somewhat functional and rigid system, among other factors.

The footballer in question is normally a bit of a maverick — a creative type that a section of the fans are always calling on to be in the team, but to whom the manager at best struggles to fully warm to, and at worst, completely ostracises.

For Jack Charlton, it was Liam Brady. For Steve Staunton, it was Stephen Ireland. For Giovanni Trapattoni, it was Andy Reid. For Martin O’Neill, it was Wes Hoolahan.

Even Brian Kerr had it to a degree with English-born-Irish-eligible forward Lee Trundle.

“I remember that era because I was the [Ireland] manager at the time, and if my memory serves me right Lee was doing a lot of these… Fancy things and scoring wonderful goals, but it was in division three,” Kerr later recalled when speaking on Today FM.

“”He wasn’t quite in the right shape to play international football.

“He wouldn’t have been the speediest chap that ever played centre forward in British football. He promoted himself a couple of times as being eligible for us, but I had a look… And decided ‘No’.

“I certainly went to one match, I think after that I’d seen enough, I’d watched a fair bit on television, I just thought, look, what I thought I saw on the telly, when I saw it live I said yeah he wasn’t quick enough getting around.”

There simply always seems to be a consensus among a certain group of supporters (and often pundits too) that a certain player eligible to wear the green jersey is being unfairly snubbed.

They are often players who, for all their attacking gifts, are sometimes regarded as defensive liabilities, whose work-rate at least seemingly pales in comparison to the average unspectacular-but-diligent holding midfielder.

Of course, each of the cases mentioned above is different to varying degrees. Brady achieved much more in his career and attained a far higher level than any of the other players mentioned. For Stephen Ireland, the player’s personal issues were a big part of the reason he made himself unavailable. Kerr was surely right in ignoring Trundle, given that his form tapered off badly as soon as he got as high as Championship level. Reid, meanwhile, was actually selected in initial Trapattoni squads, before falling out with the manager. And Hoolahan was hardly overlooked by O’Neill, starting a number of big games, though the Dubliner was arguably never totally embraced either. Brady also played initially under Charlton, before the manager cruelly cut short the Arsenal legend’s international career in a pre-Italia ’90 friendly with West Germany, albeit at a time when most people would have accepted the midfielder’s best days were behind him.

Yet irrespective of the context, the results were consistently similar — the manager got some flak for ignoring the player, and often, said footballer’s omission was simplistically cited as a major reason for the team’s failure.

Mick McCarthy is perhaps the only Irish manager where there has been no obvious technically gifted player left out in the cold (unless you count Roy Keane, which is an altogether different scenario and hardly comparable to the cases above).

That situation might be about to change, however. On Tuesday night, in the half an hour he was on the pitch, Byrne had more of an impact than the majority who were on the field for far longer, having a hand in both the second and third goals and playing with such assurance that he could easily have been mistaken for someone who had been playing at that level for years. After his debut against Bulgaria, McCarthy even admitted that the former Man City academy player “lit up the place”.

As it stands, if the Ireland starting XI to face Georgia next month were to be decided by popular vote, you would suspect that Byrne would easily make the cut, such was the level of positivity emanating from his midweek performance.

But it would be a major surprise if McCarthy chose the Dubliner from the outset in Tbilisi. For all the encouraging noises he has made, you get the sense that the 60-year-old coach is still not entirely convinced by Byrne at the highest level. He was the one Ireland player not included in the matchday squad for last week’s crucial qualifier with Switzerland.

And it should be pointed out that Byrne was playing against a poor, tiring Bulgaria side in a relatively meaningless game. Georgia away, where Ireland are unlikely to have as much possession or territory, represents an entirely different prospect.

Moreover, throughout his career, McCarthy has had a reputation for remaining loyal to tried-and-trusted players, and that has essentially proven to be the case in his second spell as Ireland manager. Nine of the 11 players he has used have started every qualifier thus far.

That said, most critics would certainly suspect the Bulgaria display at least put Byrne higher in the pecking order, particularly when you consider that one of his direct rivals for that advanced midfield spot, Alan Judge, had a largely disappointing outing by comparison.

mick-mccarthy Mick McCarthy praised Jack Byrne's performance during the week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

One factor that will be inevitably used against Byrne, though, is his status as a League of Ireland footballer.

The player himself admitted in the build-up to the Bulgaria match that the rest of the squad are “playing at a much higher level than I am”.

Byrne, however, stopped short of suggesting he would need to leave the Hoops — with whom he is enjoying an impressive campaign not just domestically but during their stint in Europe — to secure a regular spot in the Irish side. 

I don’t see it as a negative if I am [still at Rovers next season],” he explained. “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 kinds 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.”

It is another parallel with some of the other past fan favourites — the fact that Hoolahan and Reid weren’t always playing regularly or operating at the top level was sometimes used against them.

And of course, McCarthy is not the only manager to seemingly have reservations with Byrne. He made a total of six league appearances at Blackburn and Wigan combined, while stints at Kilmarnock and Oldham also ultimately went awry, though there were factors at play beyond what he offered as a footballer in at least some of those instances, as the player himself has explained.

So all in all, Byrne, of course, still has plenty to prove. Whether he even gets a proper chance to prove it at international level, under McCarthy or beyond that, remains to be seen. But certainly, he did his cause no harm at all with his eye-catching display on Tuesday evening.

With the warm-up games out of the way, Murray, Bernard and Gavan discuss the renewed cause for optimism, impressive individual player form, and a potential quarter-final versus either South Africa or New Zealand.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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