Jack Byrne is a joy to watch. Take the chance while you can
He has been the best player in the country since returning home.
On Friday night at a bitterly cold Tallaght Stadium, Jack Byrne was the best player on the pitch as Shamrock Rovers recorded a victory over Waterford more convincing than the 2-1 score line suggests. Sean Kavanagh and Roberto Lopes got the goals as the Dublin side continued their excellent start to the season.
They are eight points clear at the top of the table and their number 29 is the best footballer in the country at the moment.
Byrne was down on the team sheet as the most advanced midfielder in a 4-4-1-1 formation. However, he floated all over the pitch and produced a near-complete midfield performance. On a couple of occasions in the opening spell of the match, the 22-year-old dropped back and collected the ball from the Rovers central defenders and displayed his range of passing. He sprayed it out left to the impressive, attacking full-back Trevor Clarke. While a couple of times he attempted a lofted pass over the top for Aaron Greene. It didn't always work, but it was a pleasure to watch a confident, talented footballer just try different things and express themselves.
Everything positive Rovers produced seemed to come through Byrne. Passing moves either began with him or were given extra impetus by his involvement. He added zip and purpose to passages of play, knocking the ball around opponents and moving his teammates around the pitch with passes. The imposing Waterford team towered over Byrne, but he proved that technique will always prevail over physicality on a football pitch - a principle that Irish football has often ignored to its detriment.
— Shamrock Rovers FC ☘️ (@ShamrockRovers) March 16, 2019
The Waterford midfield were caught in a stick or twist situation. If they stood off Byrne, he would switch play with an accurate pass. If they attempted to press him, he would either drift past them or play a short sharp pass with the outside of his boot into a teammate's feet and continue his run. At times, he resembled a young Jack Wilshere dribbling through midfield and playing clever one-twos.
Rovers have scored 20 times in 11 matches this season, conceding just five goals in that time. It is already looking like this is their league title to lose and Byrne has been central to their success over the last two months.
The midfielder has scored three goals in those games, yet his impact on Friday night went beyond goals scored or assists registered - even if he did set-up his team's second goal with a pinpoint delivery from a corner to Lopes as the back post.
For one move, Byrne dropped into the centre-circle and looked for a ball over the top. It wasn't on, so he played a short forward pass through the lines and into a teammate's feet. The Manchester City academy graduate followed his pass, got the ball back, played another pass with the outside of his boot and ran into space around 25 yards from Waterford's goal.
Upon collecting the ball again, Byrne was surrounded by three Waterford players. So, he simply played a scooped pass over them to Greene, who ran into space at the edge of the opposition penalty area and found Kavanagh at the back post with a cross that almost resulted in a goal.
There were several passages of play like this, with Byrne often finding angles and gaps for passes that didn't seem on.
He doesn't turn 23 until later this month, but Byrne has packed a lot into his short professional career. Three years ago, while on loan at Cambuur from Manchester City, the Dubliner was Irish football's great hope and was called up to train with the Ireland senior squad.
The realities of the sport hit him hard in the intervening years.
Jack met up with the young fan before training this morning to present him with his jersey from Friday’s game 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/8YyUBXJwgI
— Shamrock Rovers FC ☘️ (@ShamrockRovers) April 16, 2019
After a disappointing loan spell with Blackburn Rovers, Byrne joined Wigan Athletic in January 2017.
A year later, he signed for Oldham Athletic but only lasted eight months before joining Kilmarnock. After just five appearances for the Scottish side, he returned home to sign for Rovers.
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) April 13, 2019
He has played in the Championship, League One, the Eredivisie and the Scottish Premiership. Yet, it has been Byrne's performances for Rovers that have earned him a place in the Ireland squad and his displays on the pitch over the last two months have shown that he is back on the right track.
Against Waterford, Byrne was prepared to take the ball in any situation and constantly positioned himself between the lines. His movement and positioning in the game also reflected the stage he is at in his career - between the disappointment of his first spell in British football and his inevitable return to the game across the water.
However, the player himself said recently that he isn't thinking beyond his next game for Rovers or about a return to England, and Irish fans should do likewise. While Byrne is playing here, take the opportunity to watch him play.