Saturday 17 November 2018

Jack Byrne: I left my Dublin home at 15 so that I could have a better life for my family

Unlike most 19-year-olds Jack Byrne appreciates his family and his gift

Jack Byrne
Jack Byrne
Jack Byrne appreciates his family and gift

Dion Fanning

The second training session of the day had finished and Jack Byrne's team-mates wanted to know what he had planned for the remainder of the afternoon. "Are you taking him to the pub for Guinness?" one asks the journalist who has come to see him.

"No mate," Jack Byrne replies, his face ready to explode into laughter, "straight to the whiskey".

His team-mates laugh too because they know the truth about the player who arrived at SC Cambuur on loan from Manchester City in the summer. They have seen the determination and the will to win that have always been part of him but which hardened into something more substantial when tragedy shaped his life at an early age.

They like Jack Byrne in Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland, 140km north of Amsterdam. Here he is something exotic. His team-mates joke that they can speak English but they can't speak the language Jack Byrne speaks, a language they think is some alien form of English which they mimic by putting on bad Irish accents and saying 'fucking' a lot.

In Leeuwarden they know what Irish football is supposed to be about. Like most people in Europe, they think of fighting spirit and courage, and while they see these things in Jack Byrne, they also see a technically gifted player who makes things happen from midfield every time he gets on the ball.

The supporters who gather to watch every training session describe him in one word: "great". Yesterday several thousand turned up to watch practice ahead of the Friese derby today, the Eredivisie game against Heerenveen, the town 30km to the south.

Matches like the game against Heerenveen are one of the reasons Jack Byrne moved away from Manchester for a year. This will be the real thing, a competitive game where a lot depends on victory. Not everything, he knows that because he knows about life too, but enough to make it meaningful.

When he was a kid, he says, some people saw him as trouble. He's 19 now, he's still a kid, but he means when he was really a kid, a tiny seven-year-old with a determination his size would never be held against him. Instead it became something that made him stand out. People walked away from games talking about the fierce resolve of this boy who never saw a challenge he didn't like, who never took a backward step and who wanted every player to care as much as he did.

"I think being small has made me be a bit more aggressive because I have to protect myself when I am going in for tackles," he says. "Sometimes when I do go in people say that is being a bit dirty but it is not, it is just being clever."

This has been his guiding principle. He doesn't want to waste this opportunity, to squander what he refers to several times as his "gift".

There may come a time when the way Jack Byrne speaks gets him into trouble. He displays none of the wariness or the weariness that some footballers embrace when they sign their first pro contract. He wants to talk, and when he found a quiet room at Cambuur's stadium last Wednesday, he answered every question with a directness which those who know him well say has always been part of his personality.

His personality altered when he was still a boy, remodelled by the grief and devastation that illness and death can bring to a family. Everything changed from the moment his father John was diagnosed with cancer, despite the determination of the family to keep everything as normal as possible.

Jack's father had played football and football was the thing he shared with his sons. He took his gifted youngest son to training and watched him play every game. When illness prevented him from watching, Jack's mother and brother Stephen would take their father's place.

"I wanted to do well so I could go and tell my dad that I was doing well," his son says. "My mother would go with the camcorder to the games and I'd try and score a goal or something and then I'd go up to the hospital where my father was and look at the game on the camcorder and he'd see me score a goal and be delighted with that."

When Jack Byrne was 11, his father died, aged just 46. A close family became even closer, the fiery eagerness on the pitch become something with deeper roots and he found a greater determination.

"It gave me strength. I had to stand on my own two feet," he says now. "My mother was very upset for years over it and she still is. Not a day goes by when she wouldn't talk about him, or the family wouldn't talk about him. We're still very close to my dad's side of the family and they would be like my father figures, all my uncles and my brothers."

Football was one of the things that brought them closer. Jack was gifted and clubs in England were taking notice of this fearless kid who could play.

He was the youngest in the family but his father's death made him understand the burden of responsibility.

"There was no-one working in the family when I went away. I went away at 15 and that was one of the reasons why I went away so young, so that I could have a better life for my family. So whatever I get I make sure the first ones who are looked after are my family."

He had been going over to Manchester for a couple of years before he finally left home at 15. City gave him a five-year contract, time enough for a boy to grow out of the homesickness that understandably takes over, time too for some to lose their way.

He was always a fighter. When he showed up at St Kevin's Boys at the age of five, they saw something in him, something that made them put up with the trouble which sometimes accompanied him.

"I couldn't speak highly enough of them," he says, "because a lot of people did see me as trouble when I was young. I was getting sent off and I was having arguments with some of the kids. Some of the mothers would probably say 'What's he doing on the team?', 'I'm bringing my son up here and he's getting sent off?'"

He grew up in Clonliffe Gardens and school was just a brief interlude between games of football. "I wasn't really in school that much. I was always going on trials and that kind of stuff. I did my junior cert and ended up over in Manchester at 15."

There had been plenty of trials but City was the club he wanted. From the moment he signed, he knew what was expected - "they don't take any messing or fooling around" - and he had to learn to cope. "As soon as I went in I was a professional footballer. And that is hard to adapt to. For the first couple of weeks you are living on adrenalin, you are buzzing and then afterwards it hits you."

The realisation was that the life of the young footballer would incorporate a degree of loneliness but he was happy with his choice. Walking into City, he says, was like walking into a "European football academy".

"They were buying the best young players from around the world and they just put them in the one place. I wouldn't have had that chance if I had stayed in Ireland and been happy with my family."

Patrick Vieira is among those guiding the best young players in the world and he has a big influence on Byrne.

"He is not only great with me, he is great with the rest of the guys. He is like a father figure to us, but he is hard on us. Once we step out of line he will let us know about it, but when we do something well he will also let us know about it. When we see him working so hard to make us better after all he has achieved as a player, it gives us a lift."

Vieira compared Byrne to Roy Keane recently, while Niall Quinn spotted a resemblance to Paul Scholes. "They are a bit different. One of them is mad and one of them is a bit quiet. It's great. As a footballer I would be more inclined to be like Paul Scholes, that's the way I play."

Byrne progressed quickly in the last 18 months and was City's top scorer in the UEFA Youth League last season with six goals in eight games. In the summer, he signed a new contract and decided the way he played would benefit from a move outside England as he considered a season-long loan away from City.

"I didn't want to go to a Bolton, you know what I mean, and be just up the road from Manchester. That never came into my head. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. I wanted to experience life over here. I think that would be the best thing for me. It will make me grow up more than anything. That can only help with my football."

So he made his way to Leeuwarden, a place he'd never heard of, to take the next step in a career which doesn't necessarily have regulated steps.

He has loved it at Cambuur. He missed the first six weeks of the season after he picked up an ankle injury in the first 15 seconds of his first pre-season game but since he returned, it has been everything he wanted to be. He was one of the best players on the pitch when they lost 3-2 to PSV in Eindhoven and, in a couple of weeks, Cambuur play Ajax. He's not sure how many of his family are coming over for that game, it could be 18, it could be more, but most of the time he has few distractions during this year abroad.

His mother will be back over to see him after the international break but when Byrne first came over, he decided that he would spend every minute he could in Leeuwarden. "I am trying to keep my head down, it's a big year for me. If I do well over here it opens up opportunities."

The plan is to return to City next season but the plans could change, there could be another loan as he knows that it takes a lot to make it at City.

"You are competing with top-class players. They can go and buy a Raheem Sterling for 50 million, so you have to be good enough. And you have to be that 50 million-pound player coming through the academy to get the chance."

For Ireland, there might be opportunities too. Maybe Martin O'Neill could make the trip to Amsterdam at the end of the month to take a look at Byrne, who represents the future whatever happens in the play-off.

He was left out of Ireland under 19 squads by Paul Doolin but he has become central to the under 21 side. He played in a few squads with Jack Grealish and he says people have got the wrong impression of him.

"I do think it could have been handled better, but at the same time I was not in that situation so I don't know. I know Jack as a bloke, I was in squads with him and he is a lovely fella. I'm sure he has made the best decision for him and his family because he took a long time to think about it. I don't think he rushed into it."

Byrne is ready whenever the call comes from Ireland and is happy to be considered part of whatever promise there is for the future.

"I'm not saying I should be in the team, I'm not saying anything like that because I'm still 19 and I'm still learning my trade but I'm not sure how many Irish players are playing in top leagues around Europe. That's obviously their decision to make. If they think I'm ready, I'll be ready whenever they want me. It would be nice if they did, but obviously they'd have to think that I'm ready to compete for a place.

"I don't want to go there to make up the numbers and just be there for training. I want to go there because I think I'm good enough to be there and because I think I'm good enough to compete for a place."

Holland, he says, would like to have a little bit of what Ireland have with their fighting spirit, while Ireland might like their technical ability. He likes to think he has a bit of both but when this season ends, he faces the challenge of making an impression in the global marketplace that is Manchester City. If he is exotic in Leeuwarden, it might be different in Manchester.

"I think it's a little bit more appealing to have a guy from Spain playing number 10 rather than a guy from Ireland. It's up to us as young Irish players to flip that opinion around a little bit and stand on our own two feet and say, 'Yeah we are good enough to play at this level'. It is really up to us to shake away the opinion that it's just little Jack Byrne from Ireland."

He will have no fear, he says, if his career takes him away from England as some think he might be suited to more technical leagues. "There is so much more to football and life than playing in England."

Fear doesn't come into it, not when he had life and death to deal with at such a young age. The reality forced upon him by his father's loss means he feels a responsibility too. His family have been hit hard by the recession and when he would call Stephen during the loneliest, most homesick days at City, his brother would listen sympathetically and then ask one question. "What are you going to come home to?"

When the homesickness passed, he would see that his brother was right and another layer of determination was laid on the foundations. "When I'm 22 hopefully I can provide for him so he never has to work again because he did so much for me when I was a kid, bringing me training and all that kind of stuff. If I can get to that stage, it would mean more to me than anything."

He does this for himself but he says he does it for his family too, those who are here and those who are not.

"I saw how good my father was to my family when he was working and I was so young. He was working, he was coming home and he was bringing me out playing football. All that stuff stays with me now when I realise how lucky I am. At the end of the day who wants to live in their big house and have their big cars on their own? You need your family and friends around you."

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport