Saturday 10 December 2016

James Lawton: Jack Byrne a survivor in cruel game of increasing odds

Published 03/07/2015 | 02:30

Manchester City's Jack Byrne
Manchester City's Jack Byrne

Remember how it was when Irish football had a creative pulse which made players of the wit and the nerve of Johnny Giles, Roy Keane and Liam Brady?

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When big Jack Charlton had a talent pool which would have made Martin O'Neill believe he had died and gone straight to heaven?

If you do, you might want to raise a glass to 19-year-old Dubliner Jack Byrne.

He carries no guarantees that one day he will join that old defining and exalted company but that doesn't make the toast any less valid.

By agreeing a contract with mega-rich Manchester City, and accepting the chance to develop his skills and professionalism in the traditionally rich culture of Dutch football, he might just engender a degree of hope in a new generation of Irish youngsters - boys who otherwise had every reason to believe their cause was hopeless.

Byrne has at least won a toe-hold in a football system which has ravaged the old belief that one day you could be playing football on the streets of Dublin, and having your legs whipped by patriotic Christian Brothers defending the strength of Gaelic games, and maybe causing a stir at Manchester United or Arsenal the next.

At a time when the Football Association of Ireland report a debt of more than €50m - and provoke the inevitable question, 'For what?' - Byrne creates a small light in the gloom created by the fact that if Robbie Brady makes his move to Norwich City he will be the only member of the national side claiming a Premier League place while still under the age of 25.

This isn't so much a statistic as a statement of dire systemic failure.

Ireland's great football hope, Jack Byrne
Ireland's great football hope, Jack Byrne

Of course the root of the problem is not hard to identify. With its TV money largesse, the Premier League can hand-pick the flower of European youth, it can commit millions to the development of a 14-year-old Spanish prodigy, as it did in 2013, and give him the chance to prove that he is indeed the next Lionel Messi.

City believed this was the potential of Brahim Abdelkader when they made their move - and when some who had traced his progress in the academy of Malaga FC rated his mature value at a basic €42m.

No-one has breathed such speculation in the case of Jack Byrne but his vital feat is to have leapt the great divide which now separates so much home-grown talent in Ireland - and England - from the big international league.

He has bucked a process which made talk of the need for a new Ireland team manager in place of O'Neill after the underwhelming performance in the Euro qualifier against Scotland seem like the last word in evading the most vital truth.

O'Neill watched his team, composed largely of English Championship players and a few veterans of the Premier League, in fast growing despair. Ireland responded to his call for heightened spirit and commitment but you cannot produce superior craft and nous and sheer cleverness by order.

That has to be groomed in the best of company. In fact, two recent passages of European football action have underlined the failures of both the Irish and English games to come to terms with the demands of a new age.

Ireland's ultimately laboured performance against a scarcely inspired Scotland spoke of hopes pitched far beyond the reality of the talent being applied. TV analysts might have picked over O'Neill's tactics, some may have called for his head, but the fact, transparently, was that his team had only the means to fight to their limits and producing something more, something smoothly cohesive and ultimately decisive rarely looked a working possibility.

This has to be fed into the most relevant questioning about the scale of Irish football debt and its absolute failure to produce anything like working equity in the quality of its production of seriously competitive players. The rebuke to the English game was even more withering.

England's Premier League players, mostly farmed out to Championship clubs, were not so much beaten by Young Italy as publicly undressed at the U-21 European Championships. The Italians won with ease and looked so many miles further down the competitive road. They had the savvy of Serie A. They had old, sophisticated heads on young shoulders. They were indeed of a different and superior culture.

In England, of course, there was the usual inquest - and fresh demands from FA chairman Greg Dyke that 12 home-grown players, rather than eight, be mandatory in every Premier League squad. Dyke, ironically enough, was the TV mogul who did so much to create the Premier League - and its vast income - in the early Nineties.

Then there were promises of a reduced league and much greater consideration for the needs of the national team. Now, after the humiliation of England's dismissal from last summer's World Cup after just two group games, Dyke has a cap in his hand - and a very brusque rejection from the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore.

The league chief declared: "I want to see more English players in the league but I don't want it to happen by decree. The game benefits from having top talent from overseas. I am a great believer in competition as a driver of improvement for players. The issue is not that there is too much money. The money is a positive thing. It should enable Fifa to invest in more facilities, in social projects and other things that can improve the game.

"This is what we are doing in the Premier League. We give out around 15pc of our income for the development of football and can you think of any other company that is handing out that proportion of its turnover? This is money created by the success of the league but instead of finding its way into dubious bank accounts, it is building new pitches and helping grassroots."

Meanwhile, the FAI's embattled John Delaney has the oppressive task of explaining a huge debt when the stock of Irish football talent has rarely run so low.

No, maybe there are no easy solutions. But nor is there any place for the kind of smug evasions produced by the professional leaders of the Premier League and the Irish football authority. They talk mainly in business terms and of course there is a very good reason for this. They are businessmen in the most profitable corner of the sports world. The money comes in and the home-grown talent continues to shrink.

Scudamore talks about community projects but for both him and Delaney the most pressing one is much nearer home. It is in the recasting of native talent, of finding ways, making deals that will give life to the ambitions of the best of the young players.

Jack Byrne is to be celebrated this week not because he has become a full-blown football hero. Rather, it is that he is a survivor. He is still in the game and potentially at the highest level. It is an achievement set against ever increasing odds.

Irish Independent

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