So there was Mark Travers talking to us at Ireland base camp on the Algarve on Tuesday, buzzing with enthusiasm at his second international call-up and all teed-up not only to show off his golfing prowess to the rest of the squad but, more importantly, confirm on the training pitch that he would be ready to step into the breach, should anything befall Darren Randolph, for Ireland’s upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers.
Then the very next day he incurred a hand injury in a training session and yesterday came confirmation that it was a displaced fracture of the thumb which has now forced the young goalkeeper out of the picture.
The rest of the squad would doubtless have been looking on thinking, ‘there but for the grace of,’ not least Alan Browne.
When Mick McCarthy came back into the Irish job, he spoke highly enough of the Preston midfielder to suggest he was very much in his plans for the opening qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia. But as has happened before for the Mahon man with international opportunity knocking, injury rudely intervened and he was restricted to looking on from afar as Ireland racked up six points out of six. And with his fellow Corkonian Conor Hourihane, along with Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan, among those impressing, especially against the Georgians, Browne now knows that the goal of making his competitive debut next month has probably become that bit more challenging.
He has just the three friendly caps to his name to date, against Mexico in 2017 and Turkey and France last year and, in acknowledging that we haven’t yet seen the best of him in a green shirt, feels he can relate to Conor Hourihane’s admission that a player can freeze when making the step up.
“I’d probably agree with him there,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I froze, but it’s probably just a bit of naivety. You kind of want to take how you’ve been playing at club level into international level and you’re eager. But you’re not going to be able to play as well in that step up, certainly with players that you don’t play with week-in, week-out, so you kind of have to adapt your game to a certain degree.
Rather than making movements that you would at club level, you kind of have to adapt to the players around you. It’s a whole new team and I think the quicker you realise that, the better you’re going to play.
In particular, last May’s 2-0 defeat in the Stade de France was an eye-opener.
“Every game you play at international level is really tough and I soon found that out,” he says, “but the France game was a totally different ball game. You could see why they went on to become world champions. They’re a top-class side all over the pitch and every one of them is obviously playing at the highest level they can. We have a lot of Championship players and some League One players, so to be competing with that is a lot to ask, to be honest. But we’ve obviously got a few promotions this year and they’ll get some Premier League experience, which I’m sure will bode well for them going into the international set-up.”
Unfortunately, the Preston Irish are not among the upwardly mobile this time but, despite his disappointment at not being in the play-off shake-up, Browne is still entitled to look back with personal satisfaction on a season in which the attacking midfielder — “a number 10 with a difference,” as he puts it — crowned an impressive combination of artistry and industry with his highest tally yet of 12 goals, including a spectacular volley against Bolton which was voted the club’s goal of the season, the second year in a row he has claimed that gong.
Now, as the Irish squad continue their preparations in Portugal, his immediate ambition — and one he knows is shared by his fellow Irish internationals at Deepdale — is to finish a long season on an international high.
“We haven’t sat down and had a conversation collectively but I know in my head what I’m thinking and I’m sure the boys are as well,” he says. “I think Callum (Robinson) is an exciting player and can hurt teams on his own, he’s a really good individual. And likewise Seanie (Maguire).
"He hasn’t really performed as well as he probably would have hoped to this year, he hasn’t stood out in terms of goals and assists, but he can still go past players and damage teams that way, take a number of the players out of the game with one run which will open space for somebody else.
I’m sure the boys are out to impress on this trip, as am I. It’s my first trip under the new gaffer. First impressions last and I need to make sure it’s a good one.
Well, actually, it’s not true that all first impressions last. As we’re talking, someone notices something unusual about the tattoo on his leg, the suggestion of a new design overlaid on top of another. And could that be a bit of the wing of a Liver bird we can see still peeking through?
”If you must know, I had a Liverpool tattoo there so I had to cover it up,” he is obliged to admit.
There’s no Cork City tattoo, as least as far as we could see, but Browne does keep a keen eye on the fortunes of the hometown club he left to join Preston. His thoughts on the departure of John Caulfield?
“I think he kinda left at the right time,” he says. “Fans were starting to get on his back. Some fans have him as the status of a legend, and rightly so, but they might have questioned that if he had stayed any longer. He obviously brought great success and people will always remember that but he left at the right time.”