Belfast Telegraph

Irish League export Paul Smyth is the example for the rest of us to follow: Bobby Burns

By Gareth Hanna

Watching one of your boyhood pals scoring on his international debut is always going to be a thrill.

But when it come just two days before your own Northern Ireland U21 debut, it's an event that carries a lot more significance.

Paul Smyth stole the headlines by firing home the winner against South Korea at Windsor Park last weekend. Watching on from the stands was Glenavon's Bobby Burns.

The duo have grown up a stone's throw from one another in Crumlin and were rooming together in the U21 camp until Smyth was called into the senior panel.

"I got a room to myself for three days, so that was great," laughed Burns.

"It was brilliant though. I've known Paul all my life - we played football in the streets when we were young.

"Going from that to seeing him do so well now definitely makes you believe that you can do it too. He was all buzz about it afterwards then. He's a really good lad."

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Northern Ireland's Bobby Burns up against Iceland's Tryggvi Haraldsson.

Their evening kick-abouts on the edge of Lough Neagh have turned into international training sessions as Burns was individually invited into the senior practice in the lead-up to last weekend's friendly. Then the 18-year-old finally got onto the pitch for Ian Baraclough's U21s for Monday's 0-0 draw with Iceland.

"I was just delighted to get playing," he said.

"I had actually pulled out of the squad because I picked up an ankle injury playing against Crusaders. I then came on against Ballinamallard and felt it again so I pulled out of the squad.

"The manager contacted Gary Hamilton and asked if I could even come to train with the team and that the Northern Ireland physio would be working with me.

"That really helped and by the Thursday of the game against Spain, I felt fine. That night I bumped into Michael O'Neill and he asked how the ankle was. When I said it was ok he asked me to train with the senior squad, which was amazing.

"We were doing passing drills and an 11 v 11 match - it was a great experience being around all those guys and seeing how they prepare for a game. It made me realise that they are normal people too.

"I look at them on TV and think they're superstars but when you play with them and against them, you get the confidence that you can be as good as them.

"They're all so sound. When we came in, they were straight over to us, talking about the Irish League."

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Bobby Burns is flying at Glenavon.

They're right to be inquisitive about our local league. Crusaders' Gavin Whyte, Burns and his Glenavon team-mate Mark Sykes are all hotly tipped to follow the footsteps of Smyth, Stuart Dallas, Liam Boyce and more into the professional game.

"Paul's the example for us all," said Burns. "A year ago, he was playing for Linfield and now he's playing and scoring for QPR and Northern Ireland.

"You just need a club to have the confidence to come in and give you a chance. Now that they've seen what Paul has done, hopefully more clubs will have more confidence in signing Irish League players.

"Training every day with the under 21s makes you think that's what you want to do and that it would be nice to be full-time.

"People don't give the Irish League credit but it's a good standard too. I thought the standard of the U21 game was quite similar. The Irish League is just a lot more physical and there are more full-blooded challenges. I missed that part of the game with the Under 21s - the style was much more athletic in terms of fitness.

"And if you switched off for even a split second, the ball was in behind you."

For Burns, that doesn't seem to happen all that often as he continues to star for Glenavon, be it at left-back, in midfield or up front.

Before he can dream about a summer transfer though, he's determined to help his current side escape their run of five games without a win when they host Linfield on Tuesday evening at Mourneview Park (kick-off 7.45pm).

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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