herald

Friday 20 September 2019

'You'd get the legs kicked off you but it made you stronger'

Jack Byrne
Jack Byrne

It's a talent that was honed on the streets of the north inner city, just three minutes' walk away from Croke Park.

Tonight, it's the green grass of Lansdowne Road, on the other side of the city, which could allow Jack Byrne to showcase what he has to offer and why he has made it as close as he can get to an Ireland cap.

Byrne has packed a lot into his 23 years, from that spell as a prodigy at Manchester City, to a loan spell in Holland which led to his first Ireland call-up under Martin O'Neill, then disappointments in places like Wigan and Kilmarnock before a rebirth at Shamrock Rovers.

But he knows where it all began. The stand-out track from a vibrant Irish music scene in 2019 is Long Balconies, a stunning ballad by Dublin band A Lazarus Soul which sings of the heart and soul found in the long balconies of Dublin's inner-city flat complexes.

And as he looks to a likely senior debut, Byrne takes the story back to where it all began, street football in places like Clonliffe Gardens, where he grew up,

Water

"It must be something in the water there! I don't know," he says.

"There's good people in the community, there are good people who wants kids to do well, there are pitches in the flats. 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, but when I was younger, I'd always play."

You could call it tiki-taka on concrete. "When you're on the street with your friends, you just want to take the ball, don't you? 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," he says.

"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."

Byrne's roots are still there, sport even keeping an older generation busy, his own mother encountering Dublin star Michael Darragh Macauley in a scheme. "He's doing the GAA for Mas," Byrne says of Macauley. "I think me Ma does be up there, they're playing Ballybough against Sheriff all the time and he does be looking after it. He's sound, I've met him once or twice up there."

Macauley is a regular on the big stage at Croke Park but Byrne has yet to strut his stuff in Ireland in front of a crowd larger than the 7,000 who paid in to see a derby win for Shamrock Rovers over Bohemians last month.

He didn't make the match-day squad for the draw against Switzerland last week but should get a debut tonight.

"I don't really want to be thinking too much about it until I'm out there on the pitch. It would be a dream come true. Every kid that plays football in Ireland wants to play for their national team and if I was lucky enough that that did happen it would obviously be the proudest moment of your career."

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