| 6.7°C Dublin

Byrne factor key for Rovers

Midfield to determine outcome of heavyweight clash


ROVERS PLAYMAKER: Rovers’ captain Ronan Finn is full of praise for midfielder Jack Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

ROVERS PLAYMAKER: Rovers’ captain Ronan Finn is full of praise for midfielder Jack Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

ROVERS PLAYMAKER: Rovers’ captain Ronan Finn is full of praise for midfielder Jack Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

The battle in the heart of midfield will determine the outcome of tonight's heavyweight showdown in Tallaght Stadium, a clash which should showcase the best of what Irish football has to offer.

Shamrock Rovers expect a record crowd for a league game at the venue with ticket sales suggesting that more than 7,000 will be in attendance for the visit of champions Dundalk. Indeed, there is a possibility that all available tickets will be sold, although segregation means that a full house isn't quite possible.

It should create a proper big-match atmosphere.

"I'm 32 now but you still feel the intensity in the warm-up when you go out," says Rovers skipper Ronan Finn.


"Some games you go out and there's no atmosphere there but for this game you will feel the energy of the crowd straight away. It's like cup final day."

That's appropriate given this is a rematch of November's showdown at the Aviva Stadium, a lively occasion that went the way of the Hoops after a penalty shoot-out.

It was viewed as the natural evolution in the development of Stephen Bradley's side in their attempts to end Dundalk's period of dominance.

A league tilt is the next step and a perfect start to the campaign means the hosts enter tonight in good heart. However, Dundalk have also won all three of their opening fixtures with a clear two-horse race developing.

Rovers took one point from the four matches between the sides last term, and it's stating the obvious to say that return must improve, given that neither party look like dropping too many points elsewhere.

Dundalk's telling of the cup final tale comes with a 'what if' slant. Chris Shields' absence due to suspension robbed Vinny Perth's side of their strongest engine-room influence. Worse still, his ban could have been avoided but the club inexplicably weren't on top of the yellow-card rules.

With Shields missing from his usual station in front of the back four, Rovers dictated portions of the match. Losing Dundalk players said afterwards that the Hoops play was pretty without real penetration, but a repeat of the pattern of that match would invite problems for the champs.

That's because of the problems that Jack Byrne can create when given space.

Finn lavished praise on the Irish international in the preliminaries, speaking with admiration of his contribution to the recent Dublin derby in the 'cowpatch' at Dalymount.

He walked off the pitch with Joey O'Brien and they were both on the same page about what they had witnessed.

"I said (to O'Brien), 'Jack is just… incredible' and the two of us just laughed, he said 'Yeah, he's unbelievable.'

"His style on the ball is something that I've never seen before in a player. In Dalymount, he was head to toe in mud, freezing cold, but he still had this ability regardless of the conditions, in the most hectic game... he was the calmest man.

"I've played with some exceptional players but for sheer technical skill, he's on his own."

Finn, a member of the Dundalk European team of 2016, is bemused by the Lilywhites' criticism of Byrne performances in their encounters.


He genuinely believes that the playmaker should be firmly in Mick McCarthy's thoughts for the Euro 2020 play-offs because of what he does once he's on the pitch, even if training is another story.

"I thought he was excellent in the cup final," he says.

"He's probably one of the few players that we have that can represent our country who can have that natural grace on the ball and it's something that we need to tap into because it gives you a good outlet to genuinely affect the game. He sees passes that other people don't see.

"If Jack was on your team in training, you wouldn't fancy your chances," he smiles, "But when you see him lining out beside you on a Friday night, you look at him and go 'Right....'

"I texted him last night saying 'Friday night under the lights, that's your time.' Jack's stage isn't training, his stage is on the pitch."

Dundalk feel they have plenty of big-game performers in their ranks, though and Shields is chasing a sixth title in seven seasons.

He's likely to be partnered by winter recruit Greg Sloggett tonight, while the revitalised Jordan Flores is in contention following an injury-free run. When Shields wins the head to heads in his department, Dundalk tend to win the game.

The 29-year-old relishes the challenge presented by Byrne and a Rovers side stacked with talent, although they are without Graham Burke due to injury and Gary O'Neill due to the death of his mother; Rovers staff and players have made trips to Kerry this week to offer support to their colleague.

"You enjoy coming up against good players," says Shields, "It's going to bring out the best in you.

"Rovers have great attacking midfielders, so you have to pride yourself on winning battles and letting your talent show. You want to be playing against good players to test yourself and I'm sure they are the same."

Shields is desperate to erase the painful memories of his suspension.

"The whole day was a sickener," he sighs, "The whole week was a write-off. It was a tough one to take and it would be a personal thing for me to put it right."

Tonight is the beginning of the next phase of this rivalry.