Jack Byrne: 'I believe I'm as good as anyone in the squad'
Rising star Jack Byrne gunning for late run at Euros squad as he seizes first chance to train with Ireland seniors
Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30
Jack Byrne is coming towards the end of his media duties when Ireland manager Martin O'Neill walks into the room.
He listens to the 19-year-old deal comfortably with the queries that come his way. The average teenage footballer is like a rabbit in the headlights when faced with questions from a group of strangers but it's clear that Byrne does not view himself as an average footballer.
Instead of talking to his feet, he makes eye contact with his audience. If he has undergone media training at Manchester City, he didn't get the memo about playing every question with a straight bat. Confidence is his preference.
When he stands up to shake hands and leave the room, O'Neill is asked about the youngster's enthusiastic personality; he was already aware of a previous interview where the Dubliner had stated he felt he could influence games at any level.
"If he backs it up with ability then great," O'Neill said, with a smile. "If he turns out to be crap that's his problem. If he's cocky then great, well done. He might have a bit of that knocked out of him by the senior boys."
Considering he's not actually a member of the Ireland squad for Friday's friendly with Switzerland and next Tuesday's meeting with Slovakia, Byrne has already demonstrated that he can make a strong first impression.
He was invited to train with the senior squad yesterday and will do so again today before linking up with Noel King's U-21 panel ahead of their European Championship qualifier with Italy on Thursday.
That's the plan at the moment anyway, although it's evident that Byrne is viewing this as more than a getting to know you exercise. The experience of top-flight football in Holland with Cambuur has offered a sharp contrast from life in the academy set-up and it has strengthened his belief that he is capable of rubbing shoulders with the big boys.
His quotes speak for themselves.
"I don't think it's ahead of schedule," he says, when asked if it was a surprise when O'Neill offered him the opportunity to come into the group. "Although I'm not in the squad, I believe in my own ability (and) that I'm as good as anybody in the squad.
"I don't think I'm ahead of schedule just because I'm 19. I don't really think of it that way. I know a lot of these boys are a lot older than me but I think I can affect whatever I do on a football pitch so it doesn't matter what age I am."
Is he thinking of the Euros? The diplomatic option is passed over.
"I'm here this week to enjoy the training sessions and all but you'd be stupid if you didn't want to go to the European Championship for your country," he said. "So if I don't make this one then I'll be aiming to make the World Cup, if I don't make that I'll be aiming to make the next one.
"Of course you want to play in the European Championship. I'm playing in the top league in Holland. Although my team isn't doing too well, I feel as if I'm doing quite well so why not?"
So France wouldn't faze him?
"Of course it wouldn't. No way. If you don't believe in yourself, who is going to believe in you? If I went out to Martin and said I didn't think I was good enough to go to the Euros, he wouldn't bring me.
"He might not bring me anyway if I tell him I'm going to be the best player at the Euros but at the same time you want to go out there and think that you're definitely good enough to wear the green jersey for Ireland."
Byrne has spoken eloquently in the past about the upbringing that gave him the strength and determination to follow his dream. He was just 11 when his father John passed away and viewed making it as a pro as his chance to assume responsibility and provide for his family. To make a living in a competitive environment, a player must be able to make himself stand out.
Cambuur has challenged the creative player to learn other skills; they are a small fish compared to the majority of their Eredivisie opponents and require a miracle to avoid relegation. Byrne has tasted defeat more often than victory, but his individual contribution has turned heads.
"Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone and experience something different," he asserts. "I always want to improve, I never want to stand still.
"Even if I've played 150 times for Ireland I don't want to stand still, I want to play 160 times. People are saying, 'You're in here too early' but that's because I worked. I've worked hard to get in here early.
"But it's work and it's taking risks; it's talent as well but it's mostly work and taking risks and going out to Holland, experiencing something new, getting people talking.
"It's a high-intensity league. If you're playing against Ajax and you don't work hard to get the ball back then you don't get the ball back. They're not going to kick it long and give it back to you.
"You need to work hard and stay on top of your game because if I went out there and failed, it was a big problem for me. It does matter that the team is in the relegation zone - of course I want to get them out of there - but I can only affect my performance. I've been doing that well over there in the last couple of weeks and people have been taking note."
The lifestyle was another step into the unknown.
"They understand English, they just don't understand Irish," he grins. "You might be ordering a steak at dinner and they're coming out with a chicken burger. It's hard but I would encourage people do it? Why not. Playing in a top league against Feyenoord with 50,000 there. . . Ajax. PSV away."
His old mentors at St Kevin's Boys always believed that Byrne would feature in that kind of arena. As an inner city lad from Ballybough he looks to one of his own, Wes Hoolahan, as a role model.
"He's great to be around," he said. "Just today I was doing possession with him, seeing what way he might take his first touch or what way he might react in situations."
Loftier comparisons have been thrown around; the different facets of the midfielder's game have prompted mentions of both Paul Scholes and Roy Keane; Patrick Vieira subscribed to the Keane angle. Byrne sees himself a bit more in the Scholes mould, much as he appreciated the warm welcome from O'Neill's assistant.
"He was very helpful to me today," he said, before elaborating on his own style in a manner that might prompt Keane to join in with the senior players in today's kickaround. "I'm a technical player and I affect the game in different ways than maybe Roy might have affected them by getting on the ball.
"I'm not saying that he couldn't play football," he added hastily, perhaps sensing that he had accidentally veered into dangerous territory. "I'm saying that's just my key - the last pass rather than the first pass."
This week represents the start of what should turn out to be an interesting story.