Jack Byrne: “Football is my life, it has been since I was 12, 13 years of age”

jack byrne

“I’m different. I know I’m different,” Jack Byrne says, and he’s not wrong.

The Dubliner isn’t a typical Irish midfielder and his journey has been anything but straightforward. He only turned 23 earlier this year, but he has had a unique career and packed a lot into it.

The Shamrock Rovers midfielder sat down with Pundit Arena to reflect on his journey so far, speaking about returning home, being backed by his manager, playing for Ireland, the harsh reality of British football and why he doesn’t have “unfinished business” across the water.

Byrne left St Kevin’s Boys as a teenager to sign for Manchester City, where he was coached by Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira, who likened him to Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. He scored eight goals for City in the Uefa Youth Champions League and was tipped to become a key player for the Republic of Ireland. He was the technically gifted midfielder Ireland had desperately needed.

A successful loan spell with SC Cambuur in the Netherlands led to an invitation to train with the Ireland senior side three years ago. Byrne spoke to Irish reporters and backed himself if the chance came to play at that summer’s European Championships. It was all going to plan until one day it wasn’t.

“I maybe left too soon,” Byrne says about his time with Man City.

“I had two years left on my contract. I probably should have waited ’till the summer and seen if I had better options. But you just can’t say that at the time. These things happen and you go with your gut feeling. But I’m very grateful for the time I spent there.

“Sometimes you don’t realise how lucky you are. You’re playing in youth Champions League games and you’re training with the first team. It’s only when you step out of it that environment for a couple of months or whatever you realise, ‘I really fell on my feet there’.”

After impressing in the Eredivisie, and getting a taste of life with the Irish senior team, Byrne wanted to play first-team football. It wasn’t arrogance or naivety that made him leave City early. He is a talented footballer and wanted the chance to express that, to show everyone else what he already knew.

He actively sought to step out of his comfort zone. But he soon found out that, in the lower leagues of English football, talent only counts for so much. There are just so many pitfalls, so many variables and circumstances that are out of a player’s control.

“Playing in the Championship, at the start of the season everyone wants to play football,” he says.

“But then you lose a couple of games, and you’re in the bottom three, players and managers change and you might go a little bit more direct. They try and get wins. I understand that because it’s such a big league, there is so much money involved. And there’s no right or wrong way of doing it. But sometimes that’s just what happens. It was the same in the lower leagues. In League One, you’re playing great football up until November, December, the pitches start cutting up then. These things happen. But you just have to get on with it.”

The midfielder had a short loan spell with Blackburn Rovers, where he made seven appearances. A permanent move to Wigan Athletic was even less fruitful. Byrne made just two appearances for the Latics as Warren Joyce, the manager who signed him, was sacked six weeks after Jack arrived.

It was a similar story at Oldham Athletic, his next club. Byrne made 44 appearances for the League One side, scoring eight goals and registering nine assists. However, as Scholes’ brief stint as Oldham manager conveyed earlier this year, the club are something of a basketcase.

Byrne left for Kilmarnock last summer, only to find opportunities limited under current Scotland manager Steve Clarke, who favoured a direct style. After just five appearances for them, he accepted an offer from Stephen Bradley and Shamrock Rovers to come home after six years away.

“I probably wouldn’t have been back here if it wasn’t for him,” Byrne says of Bradley.

The Rovers head coach invited him to train with the team a few years ago and kept in touch, even going to the Netherlands to watch him in action for Cambuur.

“I appreciate his help. He’s a very good coach. I know that he wants to play football and he wanted sharp and tidy football and it suited me down to the ground. And he was a very good footballer himself back in his day. He’s still young and he still understands the modern game and modern day footballers. He’d give me advice. I respect his football opinion, he’s a really good coach.

“He’s been through a similar path to what I went through. He went away when he was younger to Arsenal, a big club, and not that it didn’t work out, you just get to a stage where you move on. And I felt when I was coming home, when I was making the decision to come home, that it was going to be a good place for me to bounce back.”

Byrne has “bounced back” and then some. The Dubliner has arguably been the best player in the League of Ireland since returning home. In 12 games for Rovers, he has scored three goals from central midfield. But his impact has gone beyond mere statistics. Byrne is the creative fulcrum of Bradley’s side and has caught the eye of Mick McCarthy, who called him up to the Ireland squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia.

“I just like taking the ball, I like taking the ball under pressure,” he says.

“I don’t mind if there is pressure on me and sometimes it’s better when you can wiggle your way out of the situation or play a one-two and suck somebody in and have a shot or whatever. I just try and take the ball and sometimes you have to manipulate the ball to get out of situations and that’s what I try to do sometimes. You want to be able to help your team in whatever way possible and I know that I’m not the most athletic, so I’m not going to be going around making box to box runs. So, if I can take the ball and move it up the pitch gradually then that’s my job done.”

In some phases of play, he collects the ball from the central defenders and sprays pinpoint passes over the top to overlapping full-backs. Or he’ll play quick one-twos with teammates, moving them around the pitch with deft touches and clever passes. Or he’ll take the ball under pressure and weave through challenges like a young Jack Wilshere. Byrne can seemingly get the better of opponents any way he wants. If you haven’t watched him play live yet, take the chance while you can. It feels inevitable that such a gifted player will return to English football at some stage.

However, he isn’t looking that far ahead. He is now living in the moment. He loves being back home in Ballybough, being around his family and playing professional football in his hometown. The impatience that drove decisions earlier in his career is no longer there. Even a call-up to the senior Ireland squad did not cloud his focus. Byrne speaks with maturity and perspective.

“I was always looking at what’s next, rather than just enjoying the moment,” he says.

“It’s hard to tell a young player things that they haven’t been through. I got advice from people who knew an awful lot more than me in the game, and at the time you’re just thinking, ‘this is going to be easy, this is going to be plain sailing, I’m going to play for Ireland and I’m going to play for whatever teams’. It’s not like that, there are so many good players out there and it takes just one lapse of concentration or a couple of bad games and you’re out of the team. It’s difficult. If I knew then what I do now, then maybe some of the stuff wouldn’t have happened. But I’m grateful for those experiences because when they come around again if they come around again, I’ll know how to deal with them a little bit better.”

Byrne is an example to every young Irish player, a gifted footballer who has handled the setbacks. He retains the same ambitions he had as a 13-year-old going over to Manchester City, the same faith in his talent and confidence. But he says he doesn’t have “unfinished business” in British football. He is happy with what he has and not looking too far beyond his next game for Rovers.

“I know what people think of me over there. I have good backing from people at Man City, big clubs,” he says.

“Would I like to play at the highest level possible? Of course, everybody would. I would like to prove to myself that I can go a step further again. But I’m happy. Happy to be home and happy to be enjoying football. Happy to be able to play football for living and I’m just taking it day by day. I don’t really have any worries at the moment. I’m quite relaxed.”

The plates have shifted and creating a career in British football is no longer as viable as it was in the past for Irish players. Setbacks are guaranteed and the profession can swallow up and spit out even the most talented players. Rather than allowing the disappointments to define him, Byrne has learned from them, pressed reset and is now playing the best football of his career.

(Originally published June 14, 2019).

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