Echo Sport Replay: Byrne on his glittering career and becoming one of the most lethal strikers in LOI history

Echo Sport Replay: Byrne on his glittering career and becoming one of the most lethal strikers in LOI history

By Stephen Leonard

JASON Byrne might not have been one of those schoolboy footballers whose door was being beaten down by the giants of British soccer, but the young player from Tallaght would become one of the most prolific strikers in the history of the League of Ireland.

By the time he brought the curtain down on a 19-year-long professional career in 2017, Byrne had amassed a massive tally of 222 league goals, just 13 short of all-time top scorer Brendan Bradley. 

Jason Byrne 215565 min

Jason Byrne was one of the most prolific strikers the League of Ireland has ever seen with the Tallaght man amassing 222 league goals in his 19 year-long career

He departed the league as one of the most decorated players ever, having helped Shelbourne to three titles between 2003 and 2006 before adding a further two winners medals to the collection with Bohemians in 2008 and ’09.

The two-time PFAI Player’s Player of the Year, raised the FAI Cup with both the Gypsies and Bray Wanderers and enjoyed some great European nights in the Champions League qualifiers, most notably in 2004 when Shels reached the third phase of the competition only to be undone by Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruña.

Byrne, a cousin of Republic of Ireland all-time leading goalscorer Robbie Keane, himself donned the green jersey when called up for international friendlies against Poland in 2004 and Chile two years later.

Looking back on a hugely successful career, Byrne spoke to The Echo about the early days that eventually saw him carve out and seize the opportunity to compete on the League of Ireland stage.

“My dad was a big influence on me. He was a driving force behind me in my career” insisted Byrne.

Jason Byrne playing for Ireland in 2006 against Gonzalo Jara Reyes of Chile min

Jason Byrne goes up against Gonzalo Jara Reyes of Chile when playing for Ireland in an international friendly in 2006

“He set me off on the football path, because, back in the day, he had me out banging the ball against the sheds, using both feet and it just took off from there then.

“We moved up to Tallaght when I was about six or seven years of age and he was looking for a team for me.

“Fettercairn was my first club and Under 9s was the starting team back then. There were no academies or small-sided games, just Under 9, 11 v 11, big huge pitch, big goals. It was a bit crazy.

Jason Byrnenewjpg min

“I was with them for three or four years and then after that Crumlin United snapped me up. I left there and went to Lourdes, I think for a year and then Crumlin wanted me to sign back.

“Then I went to Cherry Orchard for one year at Under 17s or 18s I think and from there I signed for St Colmcille’s, just down in the 30 Acres in Tallaght.

“My dad used to manage that team with Martin Shannon who sadly passed away. A few of us left Cherry Orchard and we signed for Colmcille’s so we were a young team in the Premier C in the AUL and we ended up winning that.

Jason Byrne sportsfile min

“Then my dad took over the first team and we went to Premier B and we won Premier B and that’s when Bray saw me playing.

“It’s a funny story that Pat Devlin often tells about when he sent [then assistant manager] Martin Nugent up to watch me one morning.

“I hadn’t been playing great to be honest and Devo’ rang him at half time and said ‘how’s the young kid doing?’ Martin said ‘He’s not doing great.’

Jason Byrne 2 min

Devo’ said ‘Did he score?’ And he said ‘Yeah, a hat-trick’. Devo said ‘Ok we’re signing him’ It was crazy, but that’s a true test of any striker- you’re having a bad game and you’re still scoring goals.

“So Bray snapped me up back in 1998 and I scored on my debut and in three or four games in a row and I ended up getting ‘Player of the Month’ for September in 1998.

“I felt that this was my chance to shine, but then November came and I broke my ankle up in Sligo in a cup match.

Jason Byrne 22 min

“So going from signing for Bray, scoring goals and then getting ‘Player of the Month’, you’ve reached that high to, all of a sudden, being brought back down with a bang, breaking your ankle and being out for about six months, it was tough.

“It happened in Sligo and I remember being in Sligo Hospital and they just put a plaster of Paris on me leg and when I came back down to Tallaght Hospital, they said ‘What the hell!’ They put two screws in my ankle and put the normal plaster on it which was much lighter.

“But I was determined to get back. The lads went on a great cup run that year in 1999 and I was determined to make the cup final. That was my goal.

Jason Byrne and Owen Heary celebrate min

“We got to the cup final [against Finn Harps] and it went to two replays. I didn’t play the first match, the second game I came on and we drew again. The last game I started and, lucky enough, I scored two goals and we won 2-1.

“From a high, down to a low and right back to a high again. It was crazy, but then two weeks later we got relegated to the First Division which brought it right back down again, so it was a bit of a crazy start to my [League of Ireland] career.

“So we were back down to the First Division which I didn’t like very much. It took me a while to get used to it. It was tough, but we got ourselves back to the Premier Division and that’s where I found my mojo again.

“I moved to Shelbourne in 2003 after five years at Bray which had been a great stepping stone for myself. Pat Devlin and the staff there looked after me really well. He’s still a great friend of mine and I still talk to him to this day.

“But I signed for Shels. It [the move] was a bit of a gamble to bring me to the next level and luckily enough it did.

“I scored on my debut. I’ve managed to score on my debut for nearly every club I’ve played for, which is a good feeling in itself.

“It’s important for your confidence because the longer it looms over you, the more you start questioning yourself.

“It’s one of the most important things for a striker- get that goal early, no matter how it comes, even if it’s off your backside.

“It was a great experience to win the League with Shels because, before that, I actually had a choice to sign for Shels or Bohs.

“I remember going to watch the two of them, I think it was one of the last games of the season and Bohs beat them, Bobby Ryan scored a header.

Both Pat [Fenlon] and [then Bohs manager] Stephen Kenny rang me, but Pat sold it to me a bit more and the rest was history.

“So it was fantastic just to get over the line [in the title race] to see how far I’d come and show all the doubters who had knocked me and didn’t believe in me.

“I had scored 25 goals, was top goal scorer. I think I got ‘Player of the Year’ that year. It couldn’t have gone any better for myself in the first season.

“I suppose they had paid a lot of money for me, I think it was 75 grand back then which was a lot for a player moving from one Irish club to another, and that was hanging over my head.

“That pressure was on me, but I always believed in my own ability. It didn’t deter me whatsoever.

“The bread and butter is the league and you have them medals in the back pocket, but the big memories are those European nights, those trips away for games. They were fantastic.

“We played in the Champions League and played against Deportivo La Coruña in the third round of the competition in Lansdowne Road.

“We had beaten Reykjavík in the first match and then we played Hajduk Split to get to the third round against Deportivo. It would have been very lucrative for Shels at the time.

“It was a tough ask [to beat the Spanish side]. Deportivo had got to the semi finals of the Champions League the year before and they had some quality players as well.

“But it was a great experience, playing in Lansdowne Road, filled to the brim, full capacity.

“Wes Hoolahan was brilliant that night. I had a chance of scoring myself, but I blew it. I was on the right hand side and I was neutralised a lot because my centre forward game didn’t really suit the European style where your back is to play and you hold it up and bring players into the game. I was more about playing on the edge, on the defender’s shoulder with balls in behind.

“Pat wanted to utilise me on the wing and do a job out there for him. It was tough, but I didn’t care because I just wanted to play in those big games. It’s something you’ll always remember and talk about in years to come.”

Consistently delivering for Shelbourne on both the domestic and European fronts, it was little surprise that Byrne caught the eye of Republic of Ireland team management.

“Getting the chance to play for Ireland was brilliant. Obviously with Robbie [Keane] there, it was fantastic.

“To be on the same pitch as him was great because, growing up, we used to be in the estates playing against each other in one v ones or two v twos and having our World Cup games.

“That’s the way we learned our trade, on the streets and then to say ‘look how far we’ve come!’

“So that time [playing for Ireland] was great. It was obviously disappointing not to get more game time in that match against Poland.

“But that week for the Chile game we went away to Portugal for a training camp and the lads were all brilliant, they looked after me really well.

“Just to be around those players and see how they do it on a daily basis was great and then to get that much game time against Chile was fantastic.

“I had the family there and I got to pull on that green jersey, it’s what you always dream of.

“I went to Cardiff in 2007/2008. There had been a bit of interest from Swedish club Djurgårdens.

“I think they were offering a lot of money at the time, about €250,000 or something like that, but there was a bit of a dispute about where the money was going. It got a bit messy and I ended up signing for Cardiff for a hell of a lot cheaper which was crazy.

“It was tough because when I went over, our season had just finished in October and they had just done a pre-season.

“I hadn’t trained in weeks and I was straight into it, so I was trying to get up to their match pace and I managed to score on my debut, but the more you push your body the more you break down and I picked up a lot of injuries which resulted in a lack of game time.

“Pat [Fenlon] had just taken over Bohs in 2008 and obviously we had worked well together before so he was really interested in signing me.

“I got a bit homesick as well and, with not playing and not even going out on loan, I felt like just calling it quits and coming back home, because I had about half a year left on my contract at Cardiff. But I said ‘look just bite the bullet, pack up and come home’ and so I signed for Bohs.

“It was a wise move and rewarding because we won the double that year. I knew they had some quality strikers there and I knew I had to up my game, get fitter, get sharper and get stronger.

“I got up to match pace halfway through that season and from there I started to hit the goal and my performance levels peaked.

“We won the league again in 2009 and then Shamrock Rovers pipped us the following year and then I signed for Dundalk.

“We had a great team up there Colin Hawkins, Greg Bolger, Keith Ward, Simon Madden, Mark Quigley. We had a great 11 but we didn’t have a great squad.

“We were doing well for three quarters of the year, but it just wasn’t to be because we didn’t have that big squad. There wasn’t that much depth there.

“So I went back to Bray and then Bohs. I had a couple of late stints with UCD and then finished up with Cabinteely and back with Pat Devlin where it had all began.

“I was the guts of 19 years going in the league which was great. I never thought that it would last even half of that.

“I never would have envisaged that, not with the route that I had taken. And even when I’m coaching kids I always try and remember that and use that story about players not always having to go away which was my experience and I tell them about the path that I took.

“I played in Europe, in the Champions League I played for my country, I won all these accolades, top scorer and I didn’t get a sniff of any trials [overseas], but that didn’t deter me whatsoever.

“I look back and feel I had an absolutely fantastic and memorable career and one that I’m very proud of and one that my family are proud of also.”

Finishing up as the second highest goal scorer in League of Ireland history, Byrne said of his pursuit of that record “Yeah it definitely was my goal. The closer I got, the more I felt there was a real chance there.

“But as you’re getting closer, you’re getting older and then the legs start going and injuries start happening and you’re missing more games than you’re playing.

“So by getting closer, it’s actually getting further away from you.

“If I hadn’t gone away [to Cardiff] especially then when I was on a hot run, I think I could have easily done it. But, look, I didn’t even think I would have got half of them goals

“I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I’m even more proud of the route that I took.”

Regarding the primary attributes that made him such a clinical finisher, Byrne said “It’s instinctiveness. It’s hard to coach. I always used to say ‘the goalposts don’t move and no matter where you are on that pitch, always know where them goalposts are.’

“Then automatically, your instinct kicks in, because if that ball comes to you, you’re just going to shoot because you know exactly where that goal is.

“I’m not going to beat a player. That’s not my type of game. I don’t have that many tricks, but it’s just about having that little drop of the shoulder and knowing what areas to attack.

“Playing a football match is like telling a story. You’re reading everything that’s around you, whereas other players can switch off and it’s only when that ball comes to them that they start making decisions instead of reading the game.

“I suppose it’s something that you’re born with or some learn it on the streets because there’s nobody telling you what way to do it.

“You’re there for six or seven hours playing with your mates on the street. There’s nobody going ‘you go left or you go right’. You just do it.”

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