Alan Browne has come into the current Irish squad on the back of a tremendous personal season yet one which still ended in disappointment for promotion hopefuls Preston.
But that his team just narrowly missed out on a place in the Championship play-offs was hardly the fault of the Cork-born 23-year-old, whose consistently impressive performances have seen him claim a hat-trick of end of term awards at Deepdale: Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season, and Goal of the Season. The latter was an audacious first-time strike from the centre-circle against Cardiff City back in September.
With two years to go on a deal he signed last year, the man from Mahon feels so settled at the club he joined from Cork City four years ago, that he can admit to being that rare thing: a professional footballer who doesn’t have an agent.
“I don’t have an agent for the reason that I am happy,” he says simply.
“I am comfortable negotiating my own deals. I usually deal with the chairman Peter Ridsdale and I have spoken to the manager this year. But it’s usually the chairman I talk to. I don’t have much experience so, obviously, if I was to get an offer elsewhere then I would have to speak to someone. But the moment, I know the ins and outs at Preston.”
Reflecting on the highs and lows of the campaign just ending, he says: “I think we had a decent season collectively but we just couldn’t take that last step forward to reach the play-offs. Missing out by two points was obviously really disappointing for us. But, personally, it was a really good season for me, probably the best one I’ve had at the club yet.
“I think that’s down to a number of things. I’m used to the league now, a bit more experienced this year. And the new gaffer [Alex Neil] coming in gave everyone a fresh start. That’s the way I saw it. Some players can think, ‘is he going to like me or not?’ But I just thought it was a fresh start for me and I wanted to try and make sure I was in his plans come the start of the season. Fortunately, he took a liking to me from the start.
“I think he’s a really good coach as well as a manager. He goes into real detail and he works tirelessly, he’s always at the training ground late in the evening. He works individually and collectively. He’ll work on attributes that you’re struggling with and, collectively, he’ll work in real detail on opposition and what we need to do to break them down. And he’s not afraid to make changes if needs be. I think he’s had a really big impact.”
The key to his own success this season, Browne reckons, was that he finally settled into what he feels is his best position, as a midfielder playing behind the strikers.
“Under Simon Grayson I was moved around quite a lot. I know I’ve featured in different positions this year but that was down to injury in the team and the gaffer showing his trust in me when he needs me to play a certain role for him. It’s good for me to be able to play those positions but I think finding that 10 role and making it my own was probably the main factor in having a good season.
“Under the last manager I was a bit unsure at times whether I was best off playing further forward and then I’d have a spell of games where I’d play deeper and think maybe this is where I’m at. But the gaffer’s put me in that 10 role and stuck with me and I think I’ve adapted well to that and managed to add goals to my game.”
With Wes Hoolahan gone and the Irish squad in transition, the twice-capped Browne knows there is a real opportunity for himself and other newcomers to stake a claim.
“Yeah, it’s a relatively young squad. I know there’s experienced lads still there but a few are after dropping out of the international set up and there’s a lot of fresh faces coming in so I think it’s a real good opportunity, not only for myself, but the rest of the lads as well. I think the gaffer is aware of everyone’s qualities and I think it’s up for grabs really for everyone who puts a shirt on.”
Of course whether Martin O’Neill’s style of play can accommodate Browne in his preferred No 10 role remains to be seen.
“Every manager is different. The club manager prefers to have that natural 10 but here in the Irish set up it’s a bit different, you have to be more versatile in the way you play. That’s the role I prefer but if needs be I can help out defensively too. You have seen in the past we haven’t played with that natural 10. The likes of Wes, that was their position, but we never really played with one. It’s up to the gaffer what role he wants his midfielders to play but we are all here to do a job and will do what’s asked.
“I think within the squad we all know that we do need more goals. In the past, it was a case of hitting teams on the counter-attack and hoping that we get one but I just want to bring my own game to the international setup and try and break forward when I can.”
Browne followed up his nine goals for Preston this season with a sweet strike in an Irish shirt in last Sunday’s Scott Brown testimonial game and he will now relish the opportunity, if it comes, of going up against Paul Pogba and the rest of the French team in what is likely to prove an altogether more testing assignment in Paris on Monday.
“In terms of quality, it’s probably the biggest of my career. We know it’s going to be a tough game as they are rearing to go to the World Cup and looking to probably win it outright. They have a really good team but we go there with every intention to win and hopefully we can and give Martin something to think about.”
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