Jack Byrne may be key to Rovers passing the test against Dundalk
Midfielder will play central role in Tallaght club’s bid to claim top spot this season
Jack Byrne of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk’s Sean Murray in action at the FAI Cup Final at the Aviva Stadium on November 3rd, 2019. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Three matches in and the table looks more or less perfect from a Shamrock Rovers perspective, although Friday’s visit to Tallaght by Dundalk represents by far the greatest test yet of the Dublin club’s ability to claim top spot this season.
It may be too early at this stage to bill the game as any sort of decider, but the points may well prove previous come October. And interest levels are certainly high, with upwards of 7,000 expected – another new record for the league game at Tallaght.
Having substantially changed his side for the game in Waterford, Stephen Bradley is likely to substantially change it back again, with the likes of Joey O’Brien and Ronan Finn expected to return after having been rested in midweek. Graham Burke is out for at least another couple of weeks after picking up a calf injury as he scored five in the rout of Cork City last Friday night.
For the visitors, Georgie Kelly is over a back problem and expected to join the squad but Pat McEleney and Darragh Leahy are doubts while John Mountney and Sean Murray are still sidelined by injury and the wait for Stefan Colovic’s international clearance continues.
I’m not saying he’ll be brilliant, he’ll just do what he always does but more often than not he’s exceptional
Seán Kavanagh is also out for the longer term with a knee injury, while Gary O’Neill may miss the game following the sudden death this week of his mother.
Jack Byrne will be centrally involved, though, and while the Dundalk fans like to downplay his capacity to dictate games from the centre of midfield, one of their former players, Ronan Finn, believes this is just the sort of occasion on which the Dubliner can be expected to shine.
“I’m not saying he’ll be brilliant, he’ll just do what he always does but more often than not he’s exceptional,” says the 32-year-old with a flash of his trademark grin.
“Dundalk fans – maybe that perception is their own agenda, but I thought he was excellent in the [cup] final. I mean, Jack sees passes that other players don’t see. They won’t come off every single time because if they did, he’d be playing for Bayern Munich or someone like that. But he sees things that no one in the stadium can see. He makes the one pass, two passes, three passes that are the difference.”
That seemed to be the case in the win over Bohemians a couple of weeks ago as Byrne came into his own, according to Finn.
Jack in training is not the Jack you see on the pitch. On Friday night, he just switches on
“On a cow patch of a pitch his balance, his style on the ball, is something that I’ve never seen before in a player. And I’ve played with some really good players. He was like the calmest man in Dalymount.”
Finn echoes the view expressed by Bradley that Byrne has improved almost beyond recognition over the course of the past year, but laughs at the suggestion that his progress is down to any great application on the training ground.
“Jack in training is not the Jack you see on the pitch,” he says, still smiling. “On Friday night, he just switches on. If Jack was on your team in training, you wouldn’t fancy your chances. But when you see him lining out beside you on a Friday night, you look at him and go ‘Right...’
“In training, Jack ticks over like a lot of players. But you’ll see a lot of players over the years who are brilliant in training and then, when it comes to a game day, they just can’t replicate it. Jack’s stage isn’t training... his stage is the pitch.”
The view among Dundalk fans tends to be that Chris Shields has had the measure of the young midfielder, and he’ll have to have it again here if the champions are once again to get the better of their rivals.
Rovers, though, are likely to find scoring freely while keeping a clean sheet rather more of a challenge against a side that has also secured maximum points without having produced their best yet.