Tuesday 17 September 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Jack Byrne sent the mind racing back to those early rave reviews'

Jack Byrne of Republic of Ireland
Jack Byrne of Republic of Ireland

Roy Curtis

ON what looked destined to be a strictly down-at-heel, monotone, C-list night on the Aviva catwalk, Jack Byrne suddenly strutted in to fill the Dublin night with sashaying stardust.

Byrne danced down the Lansdowne Road ramp for a late cameo that showcased the kind of rare creative skills that can deliver an authentic stirring of the blood.

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Josh Cullen made an impressive opening night statement in midfield and James Collins grabbed a debut goal.

But, in truth, there was little to set the photographer's flashbulbs blazing until Byrne arrived with supermodel poise.

And the evident football IQ of the inner-city Dub, one who grew up in the shadow of Croke Park, went a long way to slaking Ireland's desperate thirst for a new headline act.

Byrne was signposted for greatness in his teenage years at Manchester City and during a promising loan spell in Holland, only for the script to become a little frayed.

He has returned to Shamrock Rovers after disappointing stints in Scotland and England's lower leagues, but here he sent the mind racing back to those early rave reviews.

Bringing the kind of authority and technical skills so rarely seen in an Irish midfield, Byrne's lovely dead ball assist teed up Kevin Long for the goal that established a 2-1 lead.

Better was to come, a delicious ball to Enda Stevens, vital in setting a cracking Collins third goal in motion.

Was it the kind of jolt that will persuade McCarthy to immediately promote Byrne for next month's vital European Championship qualifier in Tbilisi?

Perhaps not, but, if Ireland struggle to score goals, part of the reason is the absence of a subtle safecracker.

Byrne instantly found the combinations to open Switzerland up.

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He grew up down the road from Wes Hoolahan and he has the same natural born ability to pick a pass, to deliver a game-changing flourish.

Here, he at least hinted at what he might yet become.

Certainly, his arrival transformed a contest that up to then had served primarily as a potential antidote for hypertension.

It required a thorough ransacking of the memory to recall such a tiny or hushed scattering of supporters at the Aviva.

Isolated archipelagos of green dotted an ocean of empty seats; a librarian would have approved of the volume levels; only an adrenalin junkie wishing to urgently go cold turkey could have taken any reward from the evening.

For the meagre number minded to turn up, it was a trip into unfamiliar territory.

With ten changes from last Thursday's draw with Switzerland, Mick McCarthy was hardly wargaming for the October double header which will go such a long way toward defining his second coming as Ireland's superintendent.

Rather his principal goals were clear and unambiguous – to get his fringe battalion onto the battlefield, to allow Mark Travers and Cullen – and later Byrne and Collins - become international made men, to dangle the carrot of a possible first Irish goal in front of Scott Hogan.

That Bulgaria, fresh from a Harry Kane filleting at Wembley, also opted for a complete facelift, only added to the sense of a contest scarcely a rung above a training spin.  

With the visitors sitting deep, the onus was on Ireland to take the initiative.  But, if they enjoyed a glut of possession, there was hardly a stirring of the blood.

The first half audit was grim:  A single corner, a harmlessly shinned Ronan Curtis volley and two tame Alan Judge efforts that had no earthly prospects of finding the net.

Hogan, starved of possession or opportunity, cut a frustrated figure.  With each sterile exchange, the odds against his emulating David McGoldrick last Thursday by depositing a first goal in the international bank, lengthened a little.

The transformation in the second period was impressive.  Alan Browne upped the noise levels with a simple finish after Bulgaria failed to deal with a powerful Curtis drive

But it was Byrne's arrival that propelled the evening to a higher level.

And suggested this could yet be remembered as the night when a new star sashayed into Irish football life.

Online Editors

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