Happy Jack Byrne: 'I’m just grateful to have this chance this week'

Up to last weekend, Jack Byrne would have been expecting to complete his football duties this week by heading north to Ballybofey to face Finn Harps.

Instead, he finds himself heading south to Gibraltar, after a man-of-the-match display for Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght last Friday — crowned by a spectacular goal — saw him earn a late call-up to Mick McCarthy’s squad.

And he’s more than happy to admit that he didn’t see this one coming.

“Friday night, I didn’t even know the management were at the game,” he says.

“Obviously I saw pictures that they were there afterwards but never in a million years would I have thought it would have led to a call-up. It’s been a mad couple of days.”

Of course he has been here or at least hereabouts before, Martin O’Neill having invited the young midfielder to train with the Irish squad when he was on loan from Manchester City to Dutch side Cambuur in 2016. Actually, make that the still young midfielder.

“I’m still only 22,” the Dubliner points out, “but I’m a lot more experienced to the last time I was in here. I’ve been through a lot in the game since. I’ve been away since I was 14, so I’ve seen a lot. I’m still learning, I definitely don’t know it all. But there are a lot worse places I could be learning than training with the Ireland team.”

And few better places to be, it seems, than back on familiar domestic turf.

“It’s brilliant, staying in me ma’s and getting spoiled,” he grins, “dinners and everything cooked for me for the first time in eight years, so it’s great. I’m really enjoying myself. For the first time in a while I’ve been really happy, and I think it’s shown on the pitch.”

From afar it looked for a while as if Byrne was one of those wonderkids who just wasn’t going to be able to live up to the hype, his days of stellar youthful promise — with a cocky kid attitude to match — at Man City, followed by far less eye-catching stints at Wigan, Oldham, and Kilmarnock, before Shamrock Rovers enticed him home and unexpectedly provided the launching pad for a real shot at carving out a senior international career.

On the lessons he has learned from negotiating more downs than ups since leaving City, Byrne remarks:

I am still the same person but I am more experienced, I know what makes me tick, I know what I need to do. I was still learning back then and probably didn’t know what the real football world was like. When you leave a big club, it is what it is.

“I don’t really know what went wrong. I signed for clubs and managers have been sacked, two/three weeks after I signed a three-year deal. That’s difficult. Options come up, you think ‘should I have taken that one’. Teams start flying, you make decisions and, at the time, you think it’s a good decision but it might not be in the long run. But I feel it has made me stronger and a better player.”

As an example of how the best-laid plans can go awry, he offers detail on his unsuccessful loan spell at Blackburn Rovers which followed hard on the heels of his positive experience in Holland.

“I had a conversation that summer about where I was going to go. I had quite a few options. I was going on loan from City so that obviously helped. The Blackburn one came up. I had a house up the road in Manchester and it seemed like a good idea at the time to come back and probably play 40 games in the Championship, then take it from there.

“Football doesn’t work like that, things didn’t start well. Weso [Hoolahan] was unbelievable on the day we lost 4-1 to Norwich. He ran the show. The manager is under pressure straight away and has to get results. Back then, I couldn’t get my head around that, maybe. I was young and thinking, ‘I need to be in every team, every team, every team, and be the best player every week’.

Ireland’s Jack Byrne (right) goes through his stretching routine at training. ‘I’ve been away since I was 14, so I’ve seen a lot. I’m still learning, I definitely don’t know it all. But there are a lot worse places I could be learning than training with the Ireland team.’ Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

“Also, when I was speaking to (Blackburn manager) Owen Coyle he was telling me that when we’re playing on a Tuesday night, Pep Guardiola would be up here watching me, you know. He would be pushing it that it was only up the road so that was kind of in the back of my head. Maybe I was a bit naive to think that he (Guardiola) will come if I’m doing well but you make decisions and think what might be the best one for you.”

When Jack Byrne reflects on the tough times, he can afford to think that “maybe these things were a blessing in disguise”. Because the beauty of where he is today — top of the League of Ireland and in contention for a senior international debut — is that he now has every reason to look forward, not back.

“I’m just grateful to have this chance this week and that Rovers took a chance on me,” he says.

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