What are we missing about Jack Byrne? 1 week ago

What are we missing about Jack Byrne?

Look, he's not the white knight.

He's not the answer to all our ills. He hasn't even done anything spectacular with the little game time he's been given in the last two matches.

But when Jack Byrne is in the middle of the Ireland midfield, his team mates come alive.

They sharpen up, they give him the ball and then they want to give it back to him. When they do that, they move and they make runs because they know he's always going to be looking for them and they know he'll be there again if they run into trouble.

Players who are playing at a higher standard, men who have way more international experience, defer to Jack Byrne because he's simply more comfortable on the ball. He has that knack of having more time on it. His body position is better and his intentions make the opposition back off a step.

It isn't a coincidence that Byrne is always free and it's certainly not a fluke that he's always taking it facing forward instead of trying to scramble it straight back to where it came from with a man up his arse. When you have somebody on the team who does that every time he gets the ball - and demands the ball every time he doesn't have it - it doesn't just shift the physical position of the rest of them up the pitch and back onto their toes. It changes their mindset. It livens them up.

None of this would've mattered if Ronan Curtis had just headed in from two metres out. Or if Brady's effort had dipped an inch lower. Or Hourihane's cross wasn't nicked off of Knight's boot. Or Ronan Curtis had just scored from 17 metres out under little pressure.

And, in the grand scheme of things, Stephen Kenny is so obviously the person to lead the change in Irish football and whilst his start is marred like no other manager's has ever been, with COVID-19, with injuries, with no fans in the stadiums, he's trying to bring that radical change about and he has done it whilst conceding four goals in six games, creating more chances per game than his predecessors and, ultimately, staying in League B in the Nations League which will be important down the line.

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But when you watch Byrne come onto the pitch in Wales and immediately set up two big opportunities, your wildest ambitions for him are validated, that he could cut it, even at the lofty heights of this Ireland team. International football isn't the same standard as the Premier League - it's not even close - and Byrne is a good player. What would you be worried about?

So, finally, in the 78th minute, Kenny calls on him at home to Bulgaria - the same team he dominated for 30 minutes on his debut last year - and, yes, it's exactly as you thought it would be. There's nothing dodgy about it, you're not losing anything with Byrne on the pitch, he comes on and conducts and changes the pace and the attitude of the game.

He got 17 minutes all in and it was the first time it felt like an attack was going to back up another attack, and a chance was going to lead to a better chance. It was the first time there was genuine momentum in the game and, at a time when Bulgaria should've been scrapping for survival, it was Ireland penning them in - conducted by a Shamrock Rovers midfielder.

Now, we can talk all night about players who aren't offering as much in possession. Men like Jeff Hendrick have come in for serious criticism in recent international breaks but it's clear what they're bringing to the team off the ball and every manager finds comfort in that, however idealist their philosophy is.

The question needs to be asked, however, what is it that Jack Byrne isn't doing that's worrying a manager as attack-minded as Stephen Kenny?

Actually, what is it that we're missing that someone so influential can't even get into the team when 14 of the initial 26 players called up have pulled out of the squad?

Byrne has bite. He'll work hard. In one recovery run and perfectly-timed sliding tackle on Wednesday night, he showed he's not a flake, he's not lazy. He's tuned in.

And, more importantly, when you have Jack Byrne on the pitch, you have to worry about that stuff way less anyway because of what he's doing to the other team. He's keeping the ball away from them, he's pushing them back, he's energising his team mates and keeping the tide turned in Ireland's direction.

Maybe Stephen Kenny thinks Byrne can't last the pace of international football for a full 90 minutes. But there's no evidence so far to suggest that he can't do more than coming into the action in the 78th minute.

In fact, all the evidence says is that Jack Byrne is doing a hell of a lot more than a heap of other players in the squad, and he's doing it with much less game time.