Monday 16 September 2019

'Streetwise' Byrne ready to complete leap from concrete battleground to the Aviva

Jack Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

It's a talent that was honed on the streets of the north inner city, just three minutes' walk away from Croke Park.

Tonight, it's the green grass of Lansdowne Road, on the other side of the city, which could allow Jack Byrne to showcase what he has to offer and why he has made it as close as he can get to an Ireland cap.

Byrne has packed a lot into his 23 years, from that spell as a prodigy at Manchester City, to a loan spell in Holland which led to his first Ireland call-up under Martin O'Neill, then disappointments in places like Wigan and Kilmarnock before a rebirth at Shamrock Rovers.

But he knows where it all began. The standout track from a vibrant Irish music scene in 2019 is 'Long Balconies', a stunning ballad by Dublin band A Lazarus Soul which sings of the heart and soul and found in the long balconies of the capital's inner city flat complexes.

And as he looks forward to a likely senior debut tonight against Bulgaria, Byrne takes the story back to where it all began, street football in places like Clonliffe Gardens, where he grew up,

"It must be something in the water there! I don't know," he says when asked why a small part of town can produce players like Wes Hoolahan and the recently-capped Graham Burke.

"There is good people in the community, there is good people who want kids to do well, there is pitches. Where I grew up, there is pitches in the flats. You used you go out, you'd get the legs kicked off you but it made you stronger, it made you streetwise.

"I think from around that area, I've seen a lot of street footballers, maybe that's gone out of the game a little bit because kids aren't playing on the road but when I was younger, I'd always play.

"I'd have games against Burkey's mates and he'd play against my mates. They were of a good standard - around that area, everyone knows each other, when you're growing up, we'd always be out playing together."

You could call it tiki-taka on concrete. "When you're on the street with your friends, you just want to take the ball, don't you? When I'm on the pitch, that's what I try and do, I try to take the ball as much as I can, create stuff and score goals. I just try not to lose that freedom in the game. But I still know I've a lot of work to do off the ball to make sure I can affect the game, the other side of the game," he says.

"We'd just play in the flats on concrete. You'd have to keep the ball down: kick the ball over the fence and it was going straight in the Tolka. Keep the ball on the deck and try and play."

Byrne's roots are still there, sport even keeping an older generation busy, his own mother encountering Dublin star Michael Darragh Macauley in a scheme. "He's doing the GAA for Mas," Byrne says of Macauley.

"I think me Ma does be up there, they're playing Ballybough against Sheriff all the time and he does be looking after it. He's sound, I've met him once or twice up there."

Macauley is a regular on the big stage at Croke Park but Byrne has yet to play in Ireland in front of a crowd larger than the 7,000 who paid in to see a derby win for Shamrock Rovers over Bohemians last month. He came close to an Ireland call in 2016 when O'Neill called him up.

At the time, Roy Keane commented on Byrne's self-confidence, not necessarily in a positive way, as the player's brash nature seemed to rub some up the wrong way. "I feel as if I'm older. I don't feel as if I said stuff back then that was any way over the top or out of order. I was just saying how I felt at the time," he reflects.

"I was a young kid and I was coming through the ranks at Man City at the time, I was doing quite well over in Holland and I was just saying what I felt. I think people asked me if I felt ready to play and of course you're going to back yourself and say, 'Yeah, I do feel ready to play'. I wasn't saying that I was better than the players who were in. I'd back myself if someone was to give me the opportunity. You have to believe that you will do well in the situation."

And tonight, he should get the call from McCarthy. "I don't really want to be thinking too much about it until I'm out there on the pitch. It would be a dream come true. Every kid that plays football in Ireland wants to play for their national team and if I was lucky enough that that did happen, whether it's tonight or down the line, it would obviously be the proudest moment of your career."

Irish Independent

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