I really hope Jack Byrne’s omission from the Ireland squad was down to sharpness as we don’t need another Wes Hoolahan-type saga.
At Aviva Stadium on Tuesday, watching Ireland make hard work of Lithuania, it struck me that the game was tailor-made for the Shamrock Rovers star.
And that’s not because I bumped into Jack on the way in, enjoying a chat about the season to date.
A bug swept through the Rovers squad in the last few weeks. Jack was one of the players hit by it and didn’t start against Sligo Rovers last time out - but came on.
Stephen Kenny named his Ireland squad that same day, so I’m hoping the manager only left him out for those reasons.
Jack’s time in Cyprus was effectively a write off and he was laid up for most of last year after back surgery.
But he’s not far off playing as well as he was two years ago and deserves a recall.
The re-engagement with the national team is clear to see. There are positive vibes and it doesn’t feel like there’s a wall between the supporters and the squad.
There’s a connection between the crowd, the players and the manager - and it’s an opportunity that can’t be passed up.
All we were missing against Belgium and Lithuania was a domestic based player - Bohs keeper James Tabot was a late call-up to the squad - in the starting team.
I’ve no interest in tokenism but thankfully we’re past that anyway. And, in my eyes at least, Jack should be there on merit.
Danny Mandroiu was knocking around the squad last summer and had a great 2021 for Rovers, but he’s not in the picture on current form and you can’t argue with that.
There’s a bigger picture at play here and I just hope Kenny maintains the connection he has with the domestic game.
We could do without another Wes Hoolahan saga, whereby a player with outrageous talent is only getting his chance in his 30s.
At 25, Jack has time on his side but he should also have more than four caps. My good mate Weso retired from international duty with 43, but should have had double that.
Players like Jack and Wes come along once in a generation and you need to find a place for them in your national team.
Kenny doesn’t just have one eye on the League of Ireland, he has both. So there’s no fear of anyone looking down their nose on the game here.
He’ll happily pick players from Timbuktu United in League One because he knows he’ll get a response from there.
Jack, who will be playing Champions League football this summer, is no different and we already know he’s up to the task.
By his own admission, Kenny isn’t planning to experiment willdy with his squad this year and will build on what he has ahead of Euro 2024.
You just hope Jack hasn’t missed the boat, but I don’t think Will Keane, Conor Hourihane or Ryan Manning took their chances on Tuesday, so spots will pop up.
We were crying out for a player like Jack, but he was in the stands as a fan. Hopefully the matter is addressed for the Nations League in June.
Concerns for Candystripes
Derry City’s injury problems are mounting and I’m fascinated to see how the table-toppers cope.
Michael Duffy broke his leg and Ciaron Harkin is out with a ruptured ACL
And this week, Danny Lafferty shipped a hamstring issue that’s going to rule him out of the Bohs game tonight.
Believe me, you need an awful lot of things to go your way if you want to win a league title.
Cosmetically, everything can look rosy on the pitch, you can sign some players and make a good start to the season.
That leads to heightened expectations and it’s why Ruaidhri Higgins is driven mad trying to play it all down.
Why? Because he knows what’s really going on under the hood and what’s lurking in all the nooks and crannies of the engine.
When a full-time outfit is trying to build towards a title, everything gets ramped up a couple of notches.
Physically and mentally, the demands on players increase significantly but the body mightn't be used to it.
It’s why it often takes an emerging team a couple of seasons to launch an all-out title assault.
Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk were a freakish exception as those players were physical specimens and were rarely injured.
The modern player - or at least the top ones - have to live like monks by respecting discipline.
And Higgins will know this from his time on the Republic of Ireland coaching staff.
Players are so desperate to be finely tuned, they can get hooked on it. But there’s a fine line and you have to step back.
If you push too hard something will break and Derry can’t afford any more problems.
Champs will kick on so rivals must keep pace
The international break will play into Shamrock Rovers’ hands and I think we’ll see the champions kick on.
Their performances have ebbed and flowed and they haven’t set any pulses racing, but it’s early.
The balance doesn’t look right just yet, and Stephen Bradley is trying to keep a lot of big personalities happy.
But the downtime was a good chance for him to address various issues and they’ll only get stronger.
Whether their title rivals - Derry City, St Pat’s and Sligo Rovers - can stay in touch is the big question.
Sligo were top of the league when they won in Tallaght last May but then fell off a cliff.
You’d hope that Liam Buckley and his players have learned from that experience and won’t let it slip again so easily.
And I like the way St Pat’s have bounced back from those defeats to Sligo Rovers and Bohemians.
I said at the time that they couldn’t afford to lose another game for six weeks if they were serious about winning the league.
Chris Forrester said this week that they can win the title - and that’s exactly what I want to hear.
Professional footballers should want to win things and shouldn’t be afraid to say it publicly.
I’m tired of players hedging their bets and playing down expectations by ‘taking it one game at a time’.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious and shouting it from the rooftops. If you don’t win the league, you don’t win it but at least have the balls to go for it.
A vision in Vilnius
Watching the Ireland game on Tuesday, I was reminded of my one and only time in Lithuania.
Shels played FK Vetra in Europe in 2006 and we stayed in this giant old Soviet block hotel in Vilnius.
There was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes at the club and we hadn’t been paid. The lads were rightly p****d off.
We won the game 1-0 (and 4-0 at home) so Pat Fenlon knew we needed to blow off steam and gave us a pass out.
We had a great night on the tiles and the mood lifted - and carried through to the next morning.
We were downstairs for breakfast when the doors of the room were kicked open and Dave Rogers strutted in wearing nothing but a purple thong!
He looked like the Lithuanian Borat and brought the house down. Great times.
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