Wednesday 21 February 2018

Arnold O'Byrne: How I helped boys in green on path to glory

Arnold O'Byrne played a crucial role in Ireland's success in the Jack Charlton years. Now he tells his story.

Michael Hyland, president of the FAI, Arnold O’Byrne and Jack Charlton inking a sponsorship deal in 1989
Michael Hyland, president of the FAI, Arnold O’Byrne and Jack Charlton inking a sponsorship deal in 1989
Arnold O'Byrne in 1999 as managing director of Opel Ireland. Photo: Donal Doherty
Jack Charlton in 1990 after qualifying for the quarter finals of the World Cup.
Republic of Ireland soccer fans celebrate the Italia 90 homecoming parade in Dublin. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Fans greet the Ireland team at College Green, Dublin, after they returned home from Italia 90. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Shenanigans by Arnold O'Byrne
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

They were the glory days of Irish soccer that led to Italia 90, the first time Ireland qualified for the World Cup and a series of golden years, spectacular victories and glorious defeats.

But behind the scenes there were rows and recriminations, with boss Jack Charlton threatening to resign even before the Irish team got on the road to Rome and players threatening to boycott the homecoming which drew one of the biggest crowds to Dublin in modern times, over money.

Now Arnold O'Byrne, head of General Motors in Ireland and sponsor of the Republic of Ireland soccer team, has revealed the behind-the-scenes intrigue that brought him to the steps of the Four Courts and how a "senior" member of the Irish squad demanded £20,000 for the players' pool or the players would refuse to get on the open-top bus for the triumphant parade through the streets of Dublin.

O'Byrne was approached in January 1986 by Donie Butler, commercial manager of the FAI, with a request for Opel Ireland – an offshoot of General Motors – to bankroll the appointment of Jack Charlton and sponsor the lacklustre Republic of Ireland team. But all changed utterly on June 12, 1988 when Ray Houghton put the ball in the back of the English net.

"The celebrations continued long into the night. The choirmaster, who at one stage stood on a table to lead the singing, was an Irish government minister. But no one cared; he was a good choirmaster," says O'Byrne in his memoir Shenanigans, which was published yesterday. He also reveals that Charlton, the bluff former England international, had a 'secret weapon' to galvanise the mostly English-born squad – the IRA lament 'Seán South of Garryowen'.

But luckily for the team, someone forgot the tape when the Republic of Ireland team travelled to Belfast on October 11, 1989 for a dour and dangerous World Cup qualification encounter with Northern Ireland.

"On the way to the game we were escorted by armoured vehicles with heavily armed police and we had two armed policemen on the coach. For every game it was Jack's custom to play a tape of 'Seán South from Garryowen' as the team coach neared the ground. This was a republican song commemorating the shooting dead in 1955 of Seán South, a Limerick-born IRA man, by the RUC during an IRA raid on an RUC barracks. I never knew if Jack was aware of the story behind the song but thankfully on that day in Northern Ireland someone had forgotten to bring the tape."

As they left Windsor Park after a 0-0 draw, the hostile crowd "spat at the coach and kicked it, beat the windows and generally let it be known that they did not like us".

Just as well that they didn't know most of the English-born squad were indoctrinated before games with an IRA anthem.

But there was a darker side to the relationship between the players of the Republic of Ireland squad and the sponsor, especially when the team saw the astronomical sponsorship earnings of their team-mates in England.

O'Byrne believed that a decision by the players to increase their earnings by doing a side deal with the Irish Permanent Building Society was a treacherous and "duplicitous attempt by a company who had lacked the creativity, initiative and courage to identify their own sponsorship to steal Opel's successful sponsorship".

"I recognised that players had a limited football life and would need to take advantage of every earning possibility along the way and I made it quite clear that Opel Ireland had no objection to individual players exploiting the success of the Irish squad by appearing individually in advertisements or by endorsing products. But as MD of Opel Ireland I believed that we, as official and exclusive sponsors of the Irish soccer squad. . . for them to appear in green shirts with no acknowledgement of their official sponsor was not acceptable."

Without telling his Opel bosses he launched a legal action that was only settled on the steps of the High Court with both sides claiming victory. But in Shenanigans, O'Byrne says it protected his company against "further marketing ambushes" and "commercial predators".

"The following Friday Jack asked if I could meet him the next day at Dublin Airport. At this meeting I brought Jack up to date on the events of the week. He told me he had no prior knowledge of the arrangement with Irish Permanent, that no player had forewarned him or asked his permission," writes O'Byrne.

"Jack was hurt. He was angry and expressed the opinion that certain players were attempting to undermine his authority. I could see that this was Jack's main concern. I could understand his position, but only he could resolve it. My dispute had been resolved and was no longer an issue – or so I believed. To my consternation, Jack said that unless a named senior member of the squad – who he believed was one of the organisers of the whole affair – apologised to me he would resign as manager."

O'Byrne says that "no amount of talking could dissuade Jack" and he was determined that the player would ring O'Byrne to apologise on Monday at 4pm. Precisely at that moment, in a hotel in Vienna, O'Byrne took a call from the player. "I cannot say whether he apologised or offered an explanation. To me, it was immaterial. What mattered was that he called, obviously instructed to do so by Jack. I suspect that making the call did not come easily to him. Now, I could tell Jack that he had phoned to avert a major upset."

On November 15, 1989, Ireland beat Malta to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in the country's history. But for that phone call the outcome could have been so much different.

The simmering rows over money continued – and almost marred one of the biggest celebrations seen in Dublin in modern times when the Republic of Ireland team returned from Italia 90 after defeat to Italy in the quarter-finals, when striker Toto Schillaci left Ireland's dreams in tatters in the Olympic Stadium.

While he was having a "sombre" breakfast the following morning, O'Byrne got another rude awakening. "A senior player with whom I had good relations approached me in the dining room. He asked if there would be an open-top bus waiting in Dublin and if so whether it would be branded Opel. When I told him there would, he replied that £20,000 would have to be paid into the players' pool, otherwise they would not board the bus."

O'Byrne said "no". But 15 minutes later the same player came back with a demand for £10,000 for the players' pool. Again he refused. "So he told me that the players would not travel on the bus even though there was a quarter of a million fans waiting in Dublin to greet the team."

In the end, the 'boys in green' took part and the only demand made by the players was that their wives and girlfriends should be allowed on board for the celebration.

"When we arrived in the centre of Dublin I felt a mixture of awe and fear as, viewed from the top of the bus, O'Connell Street was a sea of people, all pushing forward to get a better view. My fear, which intensified as we inched through Westemoreland Street and around College Green, was that someone was going to be seriously injured. Jack Charlton joined me on the lower deck of the bus and we were both afraid to look.

"It was due to a mixture of good luck, hard work by the undermanned gardaí on duty and the expertise of the two open-top bus drivers that no one was seriously injured.


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