Jack Byrne admits he’ll need to hit the ground running this season to stand any chance of making Mick McCarthy’s squad for the Euro 2020 play-off in Slovakia next month.
The Shamrock Rovers playmaker has been a member of McCarthy’s last five Ireland squads, and made his bow with an assist in the 3-1 friendly win over Bulgaria in September.
A first start in the 3-1 win over New Zealand in November further whetted his appetite on the back of FAI Cup success with the Hoops and brought to an end a breakthrough year.
The 23-year-old is yet to make his competitive debut under McCarthy but Byrne is in the best shape of his career and determined to show he’s fit and ready if called upon in Bratislava.
“It’s the best I’ve felt. It’s going to take a few games to find your sharpness and competitiveness, but I feel good,” Byrne said at the launch of Rovers’ headline sponsorship deal with JD Sports.
“I look better than last year, probably lost a bit of weight from when I was starting pre-season last year. I’m happy, so hopefully we can hit the ground running.
“I wasn’t playing as regularly as I would have wanted to before I came back here. I was chasing fitness. I feel good this year – I feel lean and I feel ready to hit the heights I did last year.
“I took a shorter break because I wanted to get back out on the grass in January fit – I didn’t want to be chasing it. I had a two-week break and then I came back and started working straight away.
“I know if I don’t start the season well then I’ve no chance of being in [international] squads. I’m going to have to hit the ground running because I’ve given [players in England] a head start.”
The Ballybough man was at a low ebb after deciding to terminate his contract with Kilmarnock last January and he returned to sign for Shamrock Rovers in a bid to reignite his passion for the game.
A spell with Dutch side SC Cambuur, on loan from Manchester City, set Byrne out as one of the future stars of Irish football but stints with Wigan Athletic and Oldham were disappointing.
He came under the wing of Stephen Bradley on his return to England and his performances during the 2019 season earned him the PFAI player of the year award from his peers.
Sunday sees Rovers travel to Oriel Park to take on champions Dundalk in the President’s Cup, but Byrne’s energy is focused on the league kick-off away to Bohemians the following Saturday.
“We made a statement last year [in the FAI Cup final against Dundalk]. The President’s Cup, it is what it is, but it’s still a pre-season game on paper.
“Of course, we want to win, but is somebody going to play through the pain barrier against Dundalk if they’re struggling with a knock?
“Everybody knows how important the Bohs game is and how important it is to get the league off to a good start.
“It’s always going to be a big game, so I think they might have missed a trick putting that as the first game of the season, to be honest.”