In a global football landscape increasingly studded with state-of-the-art academies, you don’t hear too much talk about street football anymore. But even though Jack Byrne has already been through the Manchester City development system, when the 23-year-old Shamrock Rovers star enthuses about his formative days in the Dublin north inner-city patch which has also given us Curtis Fleming, Wes Hoolahan, Graham Burke, and Troy Parrott, it can sound like a bygone era.
“Must be something in the water there,” he smiles. “I don’t know, there are good people in the community, good people who want kids to do well. Where I grew up, we’d just play in the flats on concrete. You’d have to keep the ball down — kick the ball over the fence, and it was going straight in the Tolka. Keep the ball on the deck and try and play.
“You’d get the legs kicked off you, but it made you stronger, it made you streetwise. From around that area, I’ve seen a lot of street footballers. Maybe that’s gone out of the game a little bit because kids aren’t playing on the road that much now, but when I was younger, I’d always play.
“I’ve have games against Burkey’s mates and he’d play against my mates. We used to play tournaments down in the Larkin, down in the school there, communities against communities, summer projects, playing against each other. It would be really good, really fun, and there was a good standard of football even back then.
“You used to have players from Belvedere, Stella Maris, Kevin’s, all from around that area. We’d get together in groups and just play.”
Byrne believes that the essence of what he has become as a professional footballer — a gifted playmaker and scorer of special goals, as the League of Ireland has learned this season — was shaped on those city streets.
I think so. When you’re on the street with your friends, you just want to take the ball, don’t you? And when I’m on the pitch, that’s what I try and do, I try to take the ball as much as I can, create stuff and score goals.
"I just try not to lose that freedom in the game. But I still know I’ve a lot of work to do off the ball to make sure I can affect the game, the other side of the game.”
And that’s a message which Mick McCarthy and his coaching staff have been drumming into Byrne in training.
“It’s different,” he says of working with the international squad. “Their standard of training is high. It’s about off-the-ball stuff — getting back into position so people can’t hurt you — as well as being on the ball, and you have to look after your touch and your pass. I probably would get away with more at Shamrock Rovers.
“You know, I understand the level I’m playing at, and I understand the level that some of the lads are playing at. Terry (Connor) and the gaffer have been great with me, they’ve shown me clips of certain sessions and where they think I can improve and what I can do better. They’re quite hard on me, saying: ‘No, Jack, do this’, but it’s only going to benefit me at the end of the day. I’m very grateful because they don’t have to do that, but they’re going out of their way to do it.”
Jack Byrne as a humble and eager learner stands in contrast to the perception of him abroad when he was first called in to train with the Irish squad under Martin O’Neill.
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‘Cocky’ was the word you heard most often about the then-19-year-old, though he denies one of the more colourful stories doing the rounds at the time, which was that he told the manager to pick him for his Euro 2016 squad.
“I don’t feel as if I said stuff back then that was any way over the top or out of order,” he reflects now. “I was a young kid and I was coming through the ranks at Man City at the time and I was doing quite well over in Holland (on loan with Eredivisie side Cambuur) and I was just saying what I felt. I think people asked me if I felt ready to play and of course you’re going to back yourself and say: ‘Yeah, I do feel ready to play’.
“I wasn’t saying that I was better than the players who were in, or that I should be playing instead of someone else. It was nothing like that.
“I just felt, like you always would, that I could back myself, and I’d still do that to this day. I’d back myself if someone was to give me the opportunity.”
Having been consigned to a purely watching brief with the backroom staff for the Euros qualifying draw with Switzerland, Byrne is now hoping that he gets just such a chance tonight by making his international debut in the friendly against Bulgaria. He says:
Every kid that plays football in Ireland wants to play for their national team, and if I was lucky enough that it did happen, whether it’s against Bulgaria or down the line, it would obviously be the proudest moment of your career, making your international debut
“I’ve had a taste being in a few squads and I’m itching to get out, but I understand that we have a good squad here and a lot of good players.”
But if does get the nod, either from the start or off the bench, he maintains he won’t consider the game as something akin to a trial.
“No, because you’d be putting pressure on yourself anyway to do well,” he says. “You want to impress everyone, not only the manager but everyone watching, but I wouldn’t be looking at it as a trial. I’d be looking at it as an extremely proud moment for myself and my family and I’d want to enjoy it rather than put too much pressure on myself to go out and rip it up.”
Longer-term, does he think he will need a move back to England to stay in contention for Irish honours?
“Is it realistic for me to stay around the squad if I’m at Shamrock Rovers? I can’t answer that question. All I can do is try and be the best player I can be and the best player for Shamrock Rovers. Because if it wasn’t for Shamrock Rovers, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the squad. I need to be respectful to Shamrock Rovers and try my best every time I’m on the pitch. Which I do. I know I’m not going to rip it up every game, it’s not realistic. I’ll have bad games, I know some games won’t be my best, I understand that.
“I don’t see it as I have to go back to England. But that’s not for me to say, it’s for the manager.”