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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 27 May, 2020

'I texted Jack last night to say, ‘Friday night, under the lights: that’s your time'

Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk go head-to-head in a mouthwatering clash at Tallaght Stadium tonight.

Jack Byrne celebrates his side's first goal against Waterford on Monday night.
Jack Byrne celebrates his side's first goal against Waterford on Monday night.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JACK BYRNE’S PHONE pinged with a message from his captain Ronan Finn on Wednesday evening. 

“Friday night, under the lights: that’s your time.” 

Tonight the Tallaght lights will again clunk into gear and turn the grass into that deeper, richer shade of green to host a weightier occasion than normal. 

Byrne is probably the League’s best player, Dundalk have been its best team for years and Shamrock Rovers are their only true challengers. Rovers are expecting a record Tallaght crowd of more than 7,000 to turn out the season’s first tussle for the crown. 

Gary O’Neill won’t be involved following the sudden passing of his mother, while Graham Burke and Sean Kavanagh miss out with injury. Rovers expect to have clearance secured for new striker Rory Gaffney, and he will be play some part. 

Both have won their opening three league games, and are the only sides to have done so. Something has to give but for Rovers, too often last season everything gave way against them. 

They finished the season 11 points behind Dundalk but didn’t win any of the head-to-head clashes in the league, losing three and drawing the other. While turning around a couple of those results  would quickly make up that points gap, Rovers manager Stephen Bradley played down our attempts to drum this game up as a potentially vital six-pointer. 

ronan-finn Ronan Finn. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

 ”No, to win a league you have to win every week. You win tomorrow, you have to go to Sligo and win in Sligo. It has to be every week. To be fair to Dundalk, we didn’t give them any margin of error last year and they didn’t make any errors.” 

Rovers did get the better of Dundalk in the FAI Cup final last year, but Bradley says it won’t have an influence on tonight. 

“It’s gone. It matters for us as a group in terms of big games like that, and how to get over the line but it’s done. This is about tonight. It’s about respecting that they are a very good side coming to Tallaght and we have to be ready for that; we have to be ready to impose our game on them. Nothing matters except winning tonight.” 

Finn’s hymn is from the same sheet.

You can get caught up in it, it’s still very early in the season. We’ve picked up where we left off and so have Dundalk. It will probably be a tactical game. Neither will want to give anything away. The onus is on us to play, we’re at home. The pitch in Tallaght will suit us. We’ve got to treat it as the game it is. It’s three points, it’s the fourth game of the season. We’re in good form, they’re in good form. There should be a very good crowd and it should be a great night for Irish football.” 

Finn and Bradley acknowledge that Rovers will learn from previous defeats against Dundalk, and there are signs that they already have. In the second Tallaght meeting between the sides last year, for example, Rovers were the better side and yet left with nothing, losing 1-0 to Sean Gannon sucker-punch in the final quarter.

sean-gannon-celebrates-scoring-the-first-goal-brian-gartland-and-john-mountney Sean Gannon celebrates his decisive goal in last year's 1-0 win for Dundalk at Tallaght. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Rovers showed a similar ability to hang in games and stem the run of play in their opening-day win over Bohemians, on a ploughed field formerly known as Dalymount Park. 

“That’s a part of our game that we have improved. The Bohs game, for example: we were not playing brilliant but we did enough to win the game. It’s about just doing it, whatever it takes. Something you learn that as a group. And the group we have now in the dressing room is experienced. If it’s nil-nil, stay in the game, you’ll get a chance. That’s what happened at Dalymount.” 

That game offered Finn a further encouraging sign. 

“Jack Byrne in Dalymount is just Jack Byrne. On a cow patch of a pitch his balance and his style on the ball is something that I’ve never seen before in a player. And I’ve played with some really good players.

“But walking off the pitch in Dalymount, head to toe in muck and freezing cold, he has this ability regardless of the conditions, in the most hectic game. He was like the calmest man in Dalymount.

“Jack sees passes that other players don’t see. They won’t come off every single time because if they did, he’d be playing for Bayern Munich or someone like that. But he sees things that no one in the stadium can see, it will be one passes, two passes, three passes that are the difference.

“I was talking to Joey [O'Brien] after the match in Dalymount, we were trudging off and I said, ‘Jack is just…incredible’ and the two of us just laughed, he said ‘Yeah, he’s unbelievable.

“Jack in training is not the Jack you see on the pitch. Come Friday night, he just switches on. If Jack was on your team in training, you wouldn’t fancy your chances [laughs].

“But when you see him lining out beside you on a Friday night, you look at him and go…right. Jack’s stage isn’t training, his stage is on the pitch.” 

Quite the stage awaits tonight. 

On TV: RTÉ Two, KO 7.45pm. 

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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