Jack Byrne could be about to fulfil a lifetime ambition and make his debut for the Republic of Ireland.
It is fair to say that he probably wasn’t expecting to be in this position when he returned home to sign for Shamrock Rovers last December after a short stint with Kilmarnock failed to work out.
However, after excelling in the Premier Division for Rovers, where he has arguably been the best player in the country, and in the Europa League, where he registered five assists and scored once, Byrne has found himself in the Ireland squad and on the verge of making his debut for the national team.
While Mick McCarthy did not confirm the player’s place in the starting XI for Tuesday’s friendly against Bulgaria, the 23-year-old spoke to the assembled media on Sunday afternoon, which suggests he may see some playing time in the game. However, the Rovers midfielder is not getting too carried away, an attitude that has served him well since returning home after a difficult stint in British football.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much. It’d be a dream come true,” Byrne said.
“Hopefully, I do myself justice. It’d be an unbelievable honour, probably the proudest day of my life.
“It’s a chance for me to represent my country, it’s a dream come true. If I did get on the pitch, I’d obviously be proud. I wouldn’t be putting too much pressure on myself, although you want to do well. I’d just go out and try and enjoy it and take in every moment and hopefully, it’ll be a good experience.”
Byrne first trained with the Ireland squad back in March 2016, when he was impressing for SC Cambuur in the Netherlands, on loan from Manchester City, and seen as the brightest prospect in Irish football. He left City with two years remaining on his contract, such was his desire to play first-team football. After spells at Wigan Athletic, Oldham Athletic and Kilmarnock, the midfielder was coaxed home by Shamrock Rovers and their head coach Stephen Bradley.
He has shined at Tallaght Stadium and feels that Rovers have provided him with the perfect platform to showcase his skills after setbacks across the water. Byrne is not looking beyond playing for Bradley’s team and does not feel he must leave the club to further his international ambitions.
“I don’t see it as a negative if I am (still at Rovers next season). If somebody came in and they spoke to Rovers and they wanted me to go or whatever, it would have to be right for me, it would have to be right for me at that stage.
“But I’m not even thinking about it. I love the club, I love playing for the club, the manager there has been unbelievable for me, Stephen McPhail, Glenn Cronin. These kind of people around me have been great to me, so it would be disrespectful for me to sit here and talk about a move… Without Shamrock Rovers, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
The player is also happy to be home, saying that being around his family again has helped fill his days – something he found difficult to do earlier in his career.
“I never really had off-the-field issues (in Britain). It was more boredom and trying to fill time. It’s a lot easier when you’re at home and you’re around your family. You can just go for a coffee, go out and chat. I go out with the young lad and my sister. My sister’s up the road. You kill time better. It’s just easier to fill the days now. Things are going well and I think it’s showing on the pitch. Obviously, when things are going well on the pitch, they seem to be well off the pitch [and vice versa].
“It’s a nice change,” he said about being at home in Ballybough on Dublin’s northside. “They’ve been with me since I moved over to Man City when I was 14. My mother was a massive part of the early part of my career, making sure I was okay. So it’s nice they can just go across the road and watch the (Shamrock Rovers) game in Tallaght.
“Being involved in this, with my family there for the qualifiers, the first one I was called in in March. They’re surreal experiences and something I’m very grateful for, and memories that will last a long time.”
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McCarthy selected Byrne in his Ireland squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Georgia and Gibraltar in March and included him again for this month’s games. The midfielder was “disappointed” to be the odd man out in the 24-man squad and not make the bench for Thursday’s 1-1 draw with Switzerland. However, he soon got over it and was fully behind his teammates.
“I was disappointed, but I’m a fan first and foremost, I’m a fan of the Irish team,” he said.
“It was an unbelievable honour for me to be involved in such a big game, to be in the dressing room before, training all week and in the dressing room after, seeing how happy everybody was, it gave me a good incentive to do well and hopefully get there one day.”
Byrne may not have to wait much longer to get his chance to represent Ireland at senior level.