Richard Sadlier: Jack Byrne's attitude is rare and self belief is priceless in professional sport
Prior to Ireland's play-off against Bosnia last November, Richie Towell appeared on RTé's Second Captains Live where he was asked if he thought he could make the step-up to international level. "Yeah, definitely" was the reply. Sitting between Tony Cascarino and I on the couch, he said that once people saw him at that level they would realise he was more than good enough to cope.
Towell had just won the double with Dundalk. He had scored the winning goal in the FAI Cup final the previous weekend. He was the stand-out player in the country and was subsequently named the PFAI Player of the Year. Clubs from the UK had been tracking him for some time but he was still a League of Ireland player. So with no experience at all of senior international football, here he was boldly stating he believed he belonged at that level.
Martin O'Neill joked last week that similar comments from Jack Byrne may land him in trouble with some of Ireland's experienced players. Byrne was training with the senior squad prior to linking up with the under 21s for the game with Italy on Thursday evening.
He spoke to the media during the week, and despite being overlooked by O'Neill for the two friendlies, he wasn't shy in putting forward his case to be involved. He said he believed he was as good as anyone that currently plays for Ireland, a ballsy remark given he wasn't even part of the squad.
There's a hierarchy in any squad of professional footballers. Long-serving players ahead of new signings, experience over youth, exceptional talent above almost everything else. You are never given instructions on how to respect the culture of a group, obviously, but players tend to instinctively know their place. There will always be someone on hand to put you back in your place if it's required, which is perhaps why O'Neill's advice to Byrne the following day was "don't be so cocky".
I was on the opposite end of the confidence spectrum when I first trained with the seniors. My first contribution in the first training session was to pass the ball directly out of play. I reluctantly did media interviews, always praising others and playing down my own abilities. I sat near the front of the bus on the way to training and said nothing in team meetings. I didn't even want to occupy the physio if there were other players around that wanted treatment. Wait your turn Roy, I'm getting a rub! I didn't feel I had earned the right to behave any other way.
Much of the focus around these two friendlies is whether the fringe players will be good enough to secure their place at the Euros.
The answer will obviously depend on O'Neill's opinions, but it will also be influenced by how ready they think they are themselves. I wonder what he thought of Shane Duffy saying he thought he was "miles off" despite his performance on Friday. Or when he said, "I can't just come in and take someone's place".
Despite his advice to Byrne, I presume O'Neill sees the value in a player having an attitude like his. We mightn't be used to hearing it from young Irish footballers so publicly, but self-belief is a priceless thing in professional sport.
Byrne appeared to change his tune entirely following his appearance in the 4-1 defeat to Italy in Waterford. Maybe someone spoke to him privately or maybe the senior players used their influence, but he was a lot more humble and measured in his post-match comments.
He praised the abilities of the senior squad and acknowledged how difficult it would be to dislodge any of them and be selected himself. He said it was an honour to play for the under 21s and stressed how hard he'll fight and work to impress O'Neill. A significant re-working of his comments from earlier in the week.
Since making those remarks on RTé, Towell signed for Championship club Brighton. He has yet to make his league debut and was ignored for these two games, but it doesn't mean he was wrong to have said what he did.
Byrne may have a long international future ahead of him with Ireland, but like many promising youngsters before him, he might not. If his comments ruffled the feathers of those around him, he can decide for himself whether he thinks that's a price worth paying.
Whatever was behind the shift in tone on Thursday, we better hope it hasn't changed how he genuinely thinks. There's a short enough supply of youngsters being produced by Ireland lately, but those that can match his ability and confidence are nowhere to be seen. Maybe embracing his kind would be better than caring about who he upsets.
Sunday Indo Sport