Monday 22 April 2019

'If I live up to the hype, then great. I'll give it my best shot' - Ireland's Jack Byrne

Jack Byrne has sporadically managed to light up Oldham’s campaign. Photo: Sarah Ansell/Getty Images
Jack Byrne has sporadically managed to light up Oldham’s campaign. Photo: Sarah Ansell/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Last year, in a casual discussion at Manchester Airport, a coach affiliated with St Kevin's Boys told a story about Jack Byrne.

The late Saturday evening flight back to Dublin was full of people returning from various football matches and activities in the north-west region. Tales were swapped.

This reporter's trip to a Blackburn match led to a chat about how things just hadn't worked out at Ewood Park for Byrne, a recent product of the Kevin's academy.

The convivial stranger recounted an anecdote that was doing the rounds. It centred around the Dubliner's attempts to make it home for Christmas, a plan that was complicated by his involvement in a car crash on the way to the airport.

It wasn't a major incident, but the timing was disastrous for Byrne and the people in the other vehicle because they were all making the journey for the same reason.

Getting home for the festive celebrations was the priority and this delay meant they were going to miss their departure time. The story went that the youngster whipped out his phone and promptly sorted it out by booking flights for everybody involved in the unfortunate clash and footing the bill. A Christmas gift.

A week ago, in an area just off the reception of Oldham Athletic Football Club, Byrne was asked to verify the accuracy. He nodded along and smiled as the details were teased out. "They were a couple from Belfast," he interjected, "I looked into their car and could see they had it all packed up for Christmas."

They had come off worse in the collision between a Range Rover and Honda Civic, although Byrne retains his own opinions about who was to blame. The original source of the story felt the whole episode was classic Jack. Not prone to dull moments, and an occasional magnet for unnecessary drama. But there was no doubt about the heart being in the right place.

* * * * *

He's only 21, you know. Yet Byrne has been making headlines for longer than the average footballer of his age, with almost seven years in England under his belt - long enough for him to referencing 'kids these days'.

From the moment Manchester City offered the prodigious talent a five-year contract, Irish eyes were watching his every move and there were soundbites to go with the attention; a comparison to Paul Scholes from Patrick Vieira was the go-to quote. A season on loan in Holland with Cambuur increased the profile, with Byrne developing his own fan club in a league that suited his technical assurance.

Martin O'Neill duly invited him to train with the Ireland squad, a call-up that is now remembered because of bullish comments from the youth about his comfort in the senior dressing room and his belief that he was as talented as anybody in the squad.

"If he backs it up with ability then great," said O'Neill, with a smile. "If he turns out to be crap, that's his problem."

That was pre-Euro 2016, when there was even chatter about the diminutive playmaker burrowing his way into the French picture. But he's faced challenges since then, with a loan stint at Blackburn and then a permanent move to Wigan providing him with a combination of rejection, disappointment and pure bad luck.

Managers that liked him either didn't back him when it came to the crunch (Owen Coyle at Blackburn) or were shown the door before they could give him a chance (Warren Joyce at Wigan). Others (current Wigan boss Paul Cook) decided the face didn't fit.

It meant a step back with a view to two forward and a relocation to Oldham, just eight miles away from Manchester City's lavish campus on a map but a world away in terms of resources and riches.

Byrne is conscious he's on a rebuilding mission, much as he's young enough to still be eligible for U-21 level although the manager who fast-tracked him to that age group, Noel King, has left him out of recent squads.

At club level, he has found a boss who wants to play him, though, with Richie Wellens signing Byrne on a two-and-a-half-year contract following a successful loan spell with the League One strugglers.

He hasn't been afraid to demand more from Byrne publicly, but he is a key player at Boundary Park and was even given the armband for a spell in a recent match with Peterborough.

"I'm just happy to be back playing," says Byrne. "I'm proving I can fit into a team. If I do live up to the hype of what people were saying about me two years ago, then great.

"I will give it my best shot. I've tried to do it my way and if it pays off then great but if it doesn't, it won't be from lack of effort. I've taken risks. I've wanted to go to clubs to challenge myself and make myself a better player and it didn't always pay off.

"And then people were saying, 'You can't play in England' . . . 'You're too small . . . 'You're only 5'7''', but I'm showing now that I can play in a team that's not just pure football. You can look at our pitch out there; we can't play unbelievable football on that."

Ireland retains a vested interest in his progress. When Wes Hoolahan retired from international duty last week, the absence of a ready-made replacement was bemoaned, but Keith Andrews was one pundit who did mention Byrne as a longer-term candidate.

As a natural street footballer from Dublin's north inner city, he ticks some of the boxes. Hoolahan had to graft his way out of League One to kick-start his journey too, and he always had a strong core of backers who believed in him even when there were sceptics at the top end of the English food chain who failed to look beyond his size.

Ex-Irish international Graham Barrett is Byrne's agent, although the player says that the relationship is deeper than that. They talk through every move together. On his summer break in Dublin, he was invited down to train at Shamrock Rovers where Damien Duff, Stephen McPhail and manager Stephen Bradley offered words of encouragement.

They know there's a unique talent there that is worth persevering with. Oldham are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the third tier, yet Byrne has sporadically managed to light up their campaign with flashes of brilliance for the showreel. Wellens has already said he was a shrewd investment for Oldham because of a potential sell-on value. It has got people talking in a positive manner again.

Byrne is a frequent social media user and human nature leads him to check out feedback. He is aware of the dim view of his current job because of the expectation he would be at a higher level by this stage, and concedes that an initial declaration that he doesn't let it bother him might not always be true.

"I can't let that stuff get to me," he says. "It (criticism) is just people, the same people that are now texting me asking for interviews when I get in the team of the week over here or stick one in the top corner. You have to take it with a pinch of salt. There's no escaping it.

"It's great when the hype is good. Everyone's saying you're great but at the end of the day, when people were saying I was great, I was playing for a Man City team that dominated the ball with the best young kids from around the world. We were battering teams, we were scoring goals. And people were saying, 'Oh he's top scorer in the youth Champions League, he's doing really well.'

"It's a completely different story then when you go to Blackburn, and you're playing Burton, and it's a relegation game six games into the season. We need to beat these and I'm defensive midfield and you're going up for headers in your own box against 6'4" strikers.

"You just want to have more good games than bad. On the pitch out there now, you'll have bad ones. The ball might bobble over your foot. It's how you react.

"It's hard for kids nowadays. Some random fella sitting at home who is 20 stone can tweet you and say, 'I thought you were crap today', and that can get in your head. You're thinking, 'Why has he said that about me? I thought I played well'. Then you get a second one and you start to think, 'Was I crap?' You might have 20 saying you're good and two saying you're crap and you think about the two."

He's a bit wiser to it all now, but he will not disengage. Byrne is unlikely to morph into a media-trained robot; he is confident, chatty and good with his time. A people person, you might say, and he will make no apologies for trying to live a semblance of a normal life away from the game. That might mean a Saturday night out after a match, catching up with friends, stuff that generally consumes lads his age.

One of his pals is Jack Grealish, a friendship which goes back to their Irish U-21 days, and it has survived through his decision to go down the English route. Grealish's socialising has occasionally brought him the wrong kind of attention.

"You have to live your life," shrugs Byrne. "Nobody is taking the piss. I look at Jack's Snapchat and he doesn't leave the training ground until 7.00 sometimes. He might a win a game on Saturday and go out but he's in on Monday morning again doing extra work again, trying to get himself ready.

"And it's not like every Saturday he's doing it, but it seems that when he does it - he gets caught. Nobody sees the hard work you put in; they just say, 'Oh footballers ... they're going out all the time enjoying themselves and they've loads of money and they're blowing it on tables.' But at the end of the day, we are young lads just trying to do what normal young lads do."

Work is serious business and there is a fiery streak that illustrates his competitive nature. There's a deeper meaning behind what he's trying to achieve too. Byrne has always spoken eloquently about the loss of his father, John, to cancer when he was just 11 years of age. We speak first on transfer deadline day, with new Moroccan owner Abdallah Lemsagam further down the corridors trying to get business done. The player has another date on his mind. "It was my dad's birthday two days ago," he says. "He would have been 57."

John came from a big family, 12 brothers and sisters from the Sheriff Street area, and they travel over en masse once a month to take in a game. His mother follows every game closely too. "Mothers always know the right time to pick up the phone and give you a call," he laughs. "After the Peterborough she rang me and said, 'You were captain, brilliant', and I'm saying to her, 'No, we lost 3-0', but then you do take a moment to step back and think that coming from St Kevin's Boys at 14 years of age to being given a chance to captain a team at 21 . . . it's not all bad.

"The family love coming over to watch the games. My mother wouldn't watch anyone else on the pitch. We could lose 6-0 and she'd say, 'You were great, son' but she never puts you under any pressure. She just wants me to be happy, and they are proud of me. Obviously, I would have loved my dad to be able to come and watch these games now but it's great that his family are still so interested, and that we've kept the connection. It's important.

"I want to keep this going for them too. I would love to play for Ireland, to play as high as I can go and, with my ability, I think I can. But there's no rush in it. It does take time."

He went back to Blackburn (for a 2-2 draw) last weekend as a more experienced player than the frustrated individual who was sidelined by Coyle in the autumn of 2016 after starting the Championship season in favour. The contrast from the Eredivisie was stark.

"There's no real difference between tempo in League One and Championship," he explains. "Possession changes so much. In Holland, you can have the ball for five minutes and then the other team has it for five minutes. Pass, pass, pass.

"Over here, if you don't close the centre-half down, then it's going into the channel. A completely different mindset. If I hadn't found that out in my experience at Blackburn, then I might have found it hard here at Oldham. But I hit the ground running here, I got my head around it early.

"I signed back here because, for the first time in a year, I was enjoying my football. I had some setbacks, but it hasn't changed my feelings towards the game. I still back myself. When I trained with Ireland, I wasn't saying I was better than anybody else. I was just comfortable in how I was playing then, and I'm comfortable here now. I could have gone to a more glamorous club with more money but I enjoy it here. I think it's a good place for me."

The Wes comparison does not bother him, but he is acutely aware of the perception that accompanies it.

"I would be a similar player," he says. "Managers don't always want that really, they want to be safe. Players like myself and Wes might do something special and win games but most managers focus on that base to build on.

"That's why Wes struggled for so long to get in. But when he did, people realised, 'Hey, this fella can play.' If I can go on and have half the career that Wes has had, I'd be happy. It might end up being a similar process for me."

At 19, he wanted everything fast, but the highs and lows of the industry have slowed Byrne down. His supporters are hopeful that Oldham will be a corner-turning, character-building experience.

Time remains his friend. Just 21, remember. The growing pains should only be a bump in the road.

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