Echo Sport Replay: Byrne recalls glory days with Rovers

Echo Sport Replay: Byrne recalls glory days with Rovers

By Stephen Leonard

AS THE Shamrock Rovers faithful greeted the sight of captain Ronan Finn raising the 2019 FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium with wild celebration, Mick Byrne was among a handful of men savouring the moment in a way few could.

The Crumlin native, who has lived in Firhouse for the past 30 years, took in the euphoric scenes alongside several men with whom he played in the famous green and white back in the 1980s and who had been part of the last Rovers outfit to lift the coveted cup 32 years before.

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Firhouse Carmel Director of Football Mick Byrne pictured with a framed photo of the Shamrock Rovers League and Cup double-winning team of the 1980s of which he was an integral part Photo by Paddy Barrett

Byrne, himself, had despatched the final goal in that 3-0 demolition of Dundalk in the 1987 decider, a match that effectively brought the curtain down on a remarkable period of dominance by the club.

Indeed, arriving at Rovers from Shelbourne in 1984, Byrne was joining a team that had just captured the League of Ireland crown, and the then 24-year-old striker would help them continue on to record a domestic double in every one of the following three seasons.

Byrne would later play with the likes of Dutch side ADO Den Haag and English Second Division outfit Huddersfield along with a plethora of League of Ireland sides including a Monaghan United outfit he helped to promotion in 1993 and a Dundalk team that topped the Premier two years later.

But it was with Billy Young’s Bohemians that the former St John Bosco, Lourdes Celtic and Stella Maris schoolboy began a remarkable journey in League of Ireland football back in 1978.

“Billy Young was massive in League of Ireland at the time, a very good coach and manager” recalled Byrne

“He used to come down and watch the games at Stella Maris and one day they came to me and said Bohs were looking to see if I’d go.

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Crumlin native Mick Byrne looks back on a remarkable period of dominance for Shamrock Rovers in the 1980s when they won four consecutive league titles and three FAI Cups

“I was delighted. Myself and my Dad jumped on the 19 bus in Rialto and went over to Billy one night and he said ‘We’re very interested in signing Michael. He’s still only a young man, he’s only turned 18, so he’ll be in the reserves and he’ll be playing with decent players and training with the first team. He’s going to get X amount of money a week and we have a signing-on fee.’

“Now the signing on fee was £2000 at the time which they’d pay to me in stages over the two-year contract.

“My dad said ‘Ok Billy, would it be ok to have a chat with Michael on his own.’ Billy said ‘Of course. I’ll be up in the office. I’ll give you ten minutes and I’ll come down to you.’ My dad said ‘Grand.’

“I don’t think Billy had even closed the door behind him and my dad said ‘Sign that bleedin’ form and let’s get out of here.’

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Mick Byrne when he was Shamrock Rovers manager in 1999

“My dad just couldn’t believe it. He said ‘Son, it’s something you always wanted to do, play football and get paid for it.’

“So in five minutes he called Billy back in and I signed everything.

“Billy had me in and out of training with the first team. It was brilliant because at the time you’d be reading about these players in the paper and I’m now playing beside them.

“The famous Turlough O’Connor played up front. I remember playing alongside him and he told me exactly what to do. Billy didn’t have to say anything to me.

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Mick Byrne Photo by Paddy Barrett

“I was playing up front with Turlough and I just found it easy to score goals and I don’t mean it to sound big-headed.

“I was probably after learning so much off people around me, I just got to know fellas, when they’d cross the ball, where it would end up. I knew where they were putting the ball in.

“So I played a couple of years there and then I moved to Shelbourne. I’d had a bit of a disagreement with Billy who, to be honest, was brilliant to me.

“So I ended up at Shels. Johnny Byrne was the manager there and I had a great time.

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“Paddy Joyce had left Bohs and he’d gone to Shels and I kind of got a partnership going with him and we were flying.

“I spent a couple of years at Shelbourne and loved it, but there was talk of me going to Man City at one stage.

“I was supposed to go on trial, but Shels wouldn’t let me go over because there were games coming up and they didn’t want me getting injured.

“A bitter taste was left in my mouth because of that, because they wouldn’t let me push on and so I put in for a transfer and I probably did it at the right time.

“Shamrock Rovers had the likes of Liam Buckley and Alan Campbell playing up front together. They were unbelievable together.

“But Buckley had left and went to Belgium. I was on the transfer list and Jim McLaughlin signed me.

“It was funny, because I was in the Marble Arch Pub with a friend of mine and Trish, who was my girlfriend (now wife) at the time.

“So we’re sitting there and my friend goes ‘Look, there’s Jim McLaughlin’ and I said ‘What’s he doing here?’

“He looked as if he was looking for somebody so I went over to him and said ‘Hiya Jim’. He looked at me and he said ‘Can I have a word with you? Can you come outside?’

“So I went outside and there was a big black jeep, Northern Ireland reg in Drimnagh like, and I was thinking, ‘Holy Jaysus, it’s not good to be going around in one of them’.

“But I sat in with him and he said ‘Look we’d love to sign you’ and I said ‘Great!’ Everything he talked about went straight over my head because this was Shamrock Rovers I was signing for. And I signed on the dotted line in the Marble Arch Pub.

“They had won the league the season before and I always slagged the lads who were there that if they had signed me the year before they’d have won the cup as well’ because we won three doubles after that.

“It was fantastic. We had some smashing players. The set-up was different and I probably learnt the hard way that the set-up was different.

“When you sign for Shamrock Rovers, you’re not just playing for Shamrock Rovers, you’re playing for the people who have gone before you. You really felt that.

“And I remember I was probably just into my second home game and Pat Byrne, who’s a great friend now, he was captain of the team.

“But I remember playing up front in that game in Milltown. I think we were winning 1-0 and we walked in at halftime and I was given a rude awakening because Pat was in the dressing room first and was waiting for me to come in.

“He had probably said three or four things to me in the first half, saying ‘What the f**k are you doing?’ and I was thinking ‘I’m playing for Shamrock Rovers here, I’m the main man here.’

“So I strolled in at half time and, before McLaughlin even got off his seat, Pat had me up against the wall and he said ‘I’m telling you now, if you don’t get your act together, you can get your bag and your boots and you can f**k off out of this dressing room!’

“And McLaughlin comes in and he’s just letting the row go on, and for a whole half of that ten-minute break Pat was just slaughtering me. Talk about hairdryer stuff. I was given a rude awakening that day

“I’d say McLaughlin had about a minute to chat and he said ‘Lads we need to be doing this and we need to be doing that. I want more of this and I want more of that’

“Like McLaughlin was unbelievable at team talks and what he was able to get out of you and he came to me and he said ‘I want that, what he [Pat] is talking about. He’s right, so I want you to do this and that.’ And I said ‘Right, fair enough.’

“And I swear to God, it was like a light had come on and I was able to see. You were playing, not for yourself, your team mates, the supporters. You were playing for the people who went before you. You’re taking on the legacy of these guys and this is what you have to do.

“And I just kind of had to take a step back and say ‘My God, I better get my act together here or McLaughlin will have me out the door.’

“We had an unbelievable team. When you think about the likes of Pat Byrne of course, John Coady, Dermot Keely, Mick Neville, Noel King, Paul Doolin, Liam O’Brien, Peter Eccles, Harry Kenny, Neville Steedman, Kevin Brady, Jody Byrne in goal. And I made a great connection with Noel Larkin who had come in.

“We went training on a Tuesday and a Thursday and the bond we had those days was just unbelievable. We pushed each other and it was hard work, but when it actually came to the game, the game was the easy part I felt because the guys knew exactly what each other was doing.

“We just felt we were a goal up before we kicked a ball, we were that confident. I always loved playing football, but I really loved being there at Rovers at that time when these players looked like they were going to take the world over.

“When I look at that whole first season, it was just so enjoyable.

“There were a couple of very strong teams pushing us at that time. Bohs, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, they would have been up there. They were all tough and they were hard places to go to, but we were just that bit above the whole lot of them I felt.

“We never took it easy. We went out to win every game. We beat Galway in the Cup Final that season so we did the double.

“You think ‘Right, that’s great I’m after winning the league, I’m after winning the cup,’ but you go back in the following season and it’s like you never won anything.

“It was back to square one, back to work. We’re not stopping here. Jim wouldn’t even mention what we’d won.

“Galway and Dundalk were pushing us for the league that second season I was there and Dundalk were our main challengers in my third season. They finished second that year.

“I always enjoyed scoring goals. You remember different goals because of what happened in games.

“I didn’t score against Galway in the Cup Final or against Waterford in the following Cup Final, but I scored in the last Cup Final I played with them against Dundalk.

“Dundalk at the time were up with us trying to win the league and they had a really good side and they actually went on and won the cup the year after.

“But Harry Kenny scored a penalty and Noel Larkin scored a second goal and then I scored. I ran to the halfway line because a mate of mine was in the crowd and I was giving it loads because it was all over now and we just had to pick up the cup.

“I scored the last goal in Milltown. It was a match against Sligo in the cup and we drew 1-1. I scored the equaliser.

“There were all the protests after the game. We knew Milltown was supposed to be getting sold, but we believed someone would come in and take over Rovers and that would be it, because it was an unbelievable pitch.

“The supporters were there forever. They’re unbelievable supporters and it was really sad. It was a special place for us and the supporters.

“When we moved from Milltown we started playing in Tolka Park. It was just a horrible season and it wasn’t a nice time to be around and Jim McLaughlin had moved on as well. He went to Derry and Dermot Keely took over.

“After the Dundalk Cup Final I was supposed to go to St Etienne for a trial, but I actually had a groin injury in that cup final and that never materialised.

“But an agent from Holland got in touch with me then and asked would I go to Holland on trial. So I went over on trial for a week with Feyenoord.

“Myself and Dermot Keely went over and they put us in a hotel and we actually trained at the stadium there for two or three sessions.

“But I still had a problem with the groin and the manager there called me in after the fourth day and he was speaking broken English and we couldn’t understand half of what he was saying because the agent wasn’t there.

“Basically the story was they’d sign me if my groin was right. They couldn’t sign me with an injury. So I was to come back in a month’s time.

“Myself and Dermot said ‘Grand, that’s it for the day so.’ It was about three o’clock and we went back to the hotel.

“We were flying back home in the morning, so we went to have our dinner and a beer. I’d say about half four we’re sitting in the bar of the hotel and I was on my third bottle of beer and next of all the agent came in the door and he looks at me with shock.

“I said ‘What’s wrong?’ He said ‘You’re playing a match tonight! You’re playing a friendly for Feyenoord! I thought they were after telling you. You better go up and have a shower and get a coffee into you.’

“Dermot is cracking up. He’s saying ‘I can’t believe you’re going to be playing a match for Feyenoord with drink on you.’

“We had to travel an hour on a bus and you’re nearly afraid to talk because they might get the smell of drink off you.

“I started the game and I scored a hat-trick. Now we won about 8-1, but my groin was getting really sore and I just went over to the bench and said you’ll have to take me off.

“So I came off and Dermot was laughing. He said ‘My God, I’m going to put you on bottles of beer before the match every time you play.’

“I didn’t sign for them in the end. I came home and went back over and I signed for ADO Den Haag. It was coming to the end of their season, so I didn’t play too long for them.

“I was probably thrown in at the deep end with them because I got over there on a Wednesday and we played Ajax on the Sunday.

“Ajax had beaten them 7-1 in their previous game. So on the Sunday I started for them and we drew 1-1 so it was a decent game.

“We had a match then on the Wednesday. PSV were the next team up and we drew 1-1 with them as well.

“It was a great start, but we didn’t get many points. They were bottom of the league when I went over and they did get relegated. I was only there for that time, but it was a great experience” remembered Byrne.

Save for two and half years at Huddersfield Town under then manager Eoin Hand, the remainder of Byrne’s footballing career would be spent in the League of Ireland, with various spells at Rovers, Sligo, Dundalk, Shelbourne and Monaghan United before getting his first taste of coaching at St James Gate, if only for a couple of games before their withdrawal from the league.

“I moved to St James Gate because Pat Byrne had gone there” continued Byrne. “I was doing a bit of coaching there with him and then he wanted to step down and I took them over, but I was only there a couple of weeks because there was a problem there with getting their license I think.

“Pat had moved from the Gate to Rovers and he said to me ‘Look it’s not happening at the Gate. Why don’t you come to Rovers with me?’ And that’s how I signed for Rovers for the fourth time.

“I played a couple of cup games with Rovers, but I was doing more coaching than anything else.

“I was there for about a year with Pat and he decided he was going to go upstairs and do Director of Football and he asked me would I be interested in taking the manager’s job.

“So I took the job and I really enjoyed that. I had some smashing players with me and we qualified for the Intertoto Cup the first year I was there.

“And then in the second year we started really well. We had a really good footballing side, but we got a load of injuries and it went a bit sour for us.

“We were third in the season all the way through up until about the last eight games of season and I think we ended up eighth.

“Joe Colwell, who was Chairman at the time, a great man, pulled me aside and said ‘Look, we’re going to have to make changes’ and that was the end of it. I finished up then.

“Today I’m with Firhouse Carmel, as Director of Football. I was living in Firhouse and my young lad was playing with the club.

“I just wanted to give something back and it ended up I was doing that with Firhouse. The people who run the club are very good, we’ve a great gang there.

“I loved football all my life, from the time I was signed when I was 17 right up to when I finished at 38 or so. People ask me would I change it? No, not at all.

“It didn’t players for Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea or any of the top teams, but I played at a level where I won so much.

“In the League of Ireland there wasn’t a trophy I hadn’t won, even when it came down to the personal ones. I was really lucky, but I worked hard.

“When Rovers beat Dundalk in the FAI Cup Final in 2019 it was 32 years since we had last won it. That final had also been against Dundalk and I scored the last goal in that match.

“The FAI gave me 25 tickets for the Rovers ‘four-in-a-row’ team [for the 2019 Cup Final] and so I got in touch with a good few of them and I think we had 14 or 15 of them going.

“Noel Larkin was actually home from Australia for the game that week and so we went out to the match.

“Ray Wilson invited myself, Pat Byrne and Noel to the suite upstairs in the Aviva. Pat had to do something for the media and so he went off and later came back with Harry Kenny.

“So the four of us are sitting there, watching the match. The game went to penalties and Rovers went and won.

“Noel Larkin turns around to us and said ‘Jesus lads, it’s 32 years since we won this cup. Harry you played in that and you scored the first goal, I scored the second goal and Mick, you scored the third goal.’

“I never even thought of it, but it was gas. We had the three goal scorers and the captain of the team sitting there together and watching the game 32 years after we had won it. Amazing.”

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