"I want to hit double figures" says refreshed Town striker Dean Byrne

Interview & article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS

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Making just seventeen appearances and recording four goals in all competitions last season, it may seem strange to suggest a twenty-three-year-old striker signed from non-league football may hold the key to Longford Town’s promotion chances this term, but when you look at the impact youngster Byrne had in his brief debut season for “De Town”, it’s easy to see why many Town supporters hold the striker in such high regard. Awarded the clubs goal of the season for 2018, thanks to his incredible long range effort in a 1-1 tie away to Drogheda United, Byrne has spent the recent off-season playing junior football with his old club, Hardwicke Town, in an effort to start the 2019 League of Ireland campaign firing on all cylinders. And judging by Byrne’s performance against Shamrock Rovers in Roadstone on Saturday, it seems to have worked a treat as the Dubliner recorded a second-half brace off the bench to claim a morale boosting 2-2 draw in “De Town’s” first official friendly run out of 2019. Speaking exclusively to BetweenTheStripes.ie, Byrne revealed his joy upon making such a successful comeback, following an injury nightmare last season.

“I was delighted with my contribution to the game, it was a big confidence boost for myself, but the most important thing is we got a result after been 2-0 down and it’s a result we can hopefully build on throughout pre-season. All in all, it was great to be back amongst the lads again on a matchday, I’ve missed it.”

Speaking of his decision to re-join his former junior club during the off-season in order to regain form and fitness, Byrne told BetweenTheStripes.ie of his great admiration for Hardwicke Town, the club where he made his name and was initially spotted by current Town boss, Neale Fenn.

“I went back to my local side Hardwicke, who I have a lot of respect and gratitude for. I know the club inside out and I knew it would only be right if I went back there because I knew they would look after me. They have helped me massively during the last few months and got me ready for pre-season and I’ve come back hungrier than ever after such a big setback but as I said, I’m feeling good and getting fitter and sharper as the weeks go bye.”

Short stints in the likes of the Leinster Senior League and AUL have started to become more common among League of Ireland players struggling for fitness, game time or even a love of the game itself at times. Former Longford Town midfielder, Craig Walsh is a recent example having dropped down to a very modest level with his local side, Inchicore Athletic before moving to Leinster Senior League powerhouses, Crumlin United. From there Walsh attracted interest from a number of national league clubs before eventually returning to Longford Town, albeit for a single appearance against Finn Harps. More successful cases of players using the non-leagues to find their feet again impressively include Richie Towell, who starred for Bluebell until Stephen Kenny came calling at Dundalk. With such tales in mind, Dean Byrne is a strong advocate of League of Ireland clubs forming more official alliances with the likes of the Leinster Senior League through a structured loan system for players.

“With the lack of a reserve league, I definitely think there should be a loan system in place with Leinster Senior League/AUL sides. I saw first-hand how it can have an impact on certain players including myself, it’s the most sensible thing to do if a player has been unlucky during the LOI season, why not allow him to regain some confidence by playing every week and enjoying playing football again. It would only benefit the league in my opinion.”

Focusing on current matters and in particular the rapidly approaching 2019 League of Ireland campaign, many Longford supporters are pinning their hopes on Byrne bringing an added sense of creativity and sharpness to “De Town’s” attack, something that was lacking at times last season. The flop transfer that was Chris Mulhall, combined with a constant string of injuries to key players often saw Neale Fenn forced to play a make shift striker in the form of midfielder and new Finn Harps signing Sam Verdon last season. Given such expectations, one could be forgiven for wondering how a relatively young and still inexperienced player may cope with such pressure? However, Byrne seems to welcome such challenges.

“There is a small amount of pressure that you feel every time you step out on the pitch. It’s the expectancy from the fans, who are paying to watch you play, they expect good performances and goals every week, especially if you are an attacking player. But mostly for me, it’s the expectations I have for myself. I want to be the best I can be every single week, I want to be the match winner but it’s up to me to prove my worth and that’s where the pressure side of things come in.”

Despite such expectations from supporters, it remains to be seen where manager Neale Fenn plans to utilise Byrne, or if the youngster will even form part of his starting eleven for the season ahead. With highly rated youngster, Aaron Dobbs arriving from Shamrock Rovers and target man Jamie Doyle arriving back after a successful debut season, Byrne may be forced to bide his time during the season. When asked if such competition for places is a concern, Byrne was quick to register his interest in becoming a supplier for his attacking counter-parts.

“No, not one bit (am I concerned), the two lads (Aaron Dobbs & Jamie Doyle) have been brilliant in pre-season so far and I’m looking forward to beginning new partnerships with both of them. They both suit my type of game as in I can play off both of them and maybe we can create something very good between us this season and hopefully they can both bang the goals in for us.”

Such comments are likely to interest Longford Town fans greatly, as there has been a long running debate ever since Byrne arrived at the club last season as to his best position. However, the twenty-three-year-old is clear in his mind as to where his best performances come from.

“Anyone who knows me knows the number 10 role is my favourite position. I like to create and score goals so obviously if I play there, I’ll be delighted but I’m happy wherever I play, and I’ll give my all for the team no matter my position on the pitch.”

Whether or not his manager, Neale Fenn heeds such comments remains to be seen but from speaking to Byrne it is immediately clear the respect and admiration he holds for the former Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers striker.

“Neale Fenn is a top manager but more importantly a top person, who is always looking to improve every player in his side. Neale has thought me a completely opposite side of my game that will eventually mould me into a much better player, his style of play is what brought me to Longford. As a striker you couldn’t ask for many better than him to be your coach.”

Indeed, London born Fenn is perhaps the most popular manager to take up the Longford Town hot-seat since a certain Stephen Kenny patrolled the Strokestown Road touchline but having fallen short in their quest for the play-offs last season, there is sure to be an added sense of pressure on everyone associated with the “Red & Black” to secure a top four finish this time around. Speaking on such chances, Byrne feels many have underestimated Fenn’s new recruits and the pace they have brought to the camp.

“It’s no secret we have lost four big figures in the side (Mick Kelly, Dan O’Reilly, Sam Verdon & Dylan McGlade), they were big players in our charge for the play-offs last season but there is always lads willing to step in and do as good a job. We have added some really good quality in the off-season that I think will see us much more attack minded than last season, we have serious pace in the side now.”

Given Longford Town were among the highest scorers in what was an extremely competitive 2018 edition of the second tier, Byrne’s analysis that Longford may be even more attacking minded is a thought to not only excite supporters but worry opposition defences. Rival managers will have plenty of opportunity to weigh up such claims in the coming weeks as the Midlands outfit travel to a number of top-class venues to take on some big names, including Dundalk and Cliftonville. Speaking on the excitement of facing such high calibre opponents in pre-season, Byrne stated:

“We are all looking forward to every pre-season game this year as they are all exciting games and will be a real test for us, but it will only benefit us. It will make us stronger as a team if we are coming up against the best, it will bring out our best side in my opinion.”

Some locals were critical of the club for not organising a home friendly in order for fans to get to know their new heroes for 2019, however, such fears have finally been put to bed with the announcement that Longford will host local rivals, Sligo Rovers at the City Calling Stadium on Saturday, February 9th. A friendly on paper, the “Bit O’Red” may be hungry to extract revenge on “De Town”, who have dumped the Westerners out of the FAI cup in humiliating circumstances in the last two campaigns running.

I’ve missed it terribly (playing at home), I loved every minute of the home games last year because of the atmosphere. It was a great feeling to walk out of the tunnel to the sound of the fans, it would get you so pumped for the game. I really can’t wait to be back in the City Calling Stadium.”

With two goals already on his card, following the game in Roadstone, attention will now turn as to where Byrne may feature in this season’s scoring charts, both at the club and in the greater sense of the First Division golden boot race.

“I want to get into double figures this year! You have to aim high and set targets for yourself, it will keep you motivated” said an enthusiastic young Byrne.

With morale high around the Longford camp after such a positive start and pre-season training believed to be going extremely well by all accounts, confidence should be sky high when Neale Fenn’s side travel to Limerick on the opening night of the season. Still some confusion over where the Munster club may be based for home games in 2019, Byrne is adamant nothing will come easy against the side relegated in a woeful fashion last year.

“We don’t look into any of that” said Byrne when asked about the “Super Blues” 2018 campaign, pre-season results to date and financial worries.

“Limerick will be a very tough game and we all know that we are not taking anything for granted. The draw with Rovers was a positive result to take into the next game against “Bohs” and hopefully we can build on it and keep progressing in pre-season. You don’t want to be creating bad habits in pre-season by losing every game because it will only have a domino effect and continue into the league.”

Dean Byrne’s return from injury and quest to claim a starring role in Neale Fenn’s plans for 2019 will continue on Tuesday night when Longford take on Keith Long’s Bohemians side at the AUL.  

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