Mick Lawlor recalls first setting eyes on Matthew Byron, son of Fergal. “Jaysus, that’s definitely Byron’s young lad,” he thought. “It’s like one looking into the mirror at the other.”
The elder Byron was All-Star goalkeeper in 2003, the year Laois won their first Leinster SFC title in 57 years with Lawlor their veteran schemer on the ‘40’.
Years later Lawlor coached his son, then a prolific free-taking forward, at underage club level. But in recent weeks Byron has featured in goals for Laois, making the decisive save for a penalty shoot-out win over Kildare in the O’Byrne Cup semi-final.
Born to be a No 1? Perhaps.
A fortnight ago, with the Munster Club SFC final in its 52nd minute, St Finbarr’s ‘keeper John Kerins made a smart and hugely significant save to deny Seán Quilter of Austin Stacks.
By the final whistle, the Cork champions had survived a late Stacks rally to qualify for an All-Ireland club semi-final – their first since 1987.
The ’Barr’s went on to be crowned champions that year, with the late John Kerins in goals behind full-back John Meyler.
Without wishing to sound maudlin, Meyler thinks back on that save and remarks: “You could see the father looking down and saying, ‘That’s my boy.’”
This afternoon in Portlaoise (3pm), Kerins Jnr will man the barricades against All-Ireland favourites Kilcoo of Down. Later that evening, at 6pm in Owenbeg, Derry will launch their Allianz Football League Division 2 campaign against Down … with all eyes on the match programme to see if any young Downeys or Tohills make the 26.
Derry’s Dr McKenna Cup campaign may have ended at the semi-final stage, but Rory Gallagher fulfilled his primary brief, running the rule over a large smattering of rookies seeking to establish their senior credentials.
Shea Downey started all three games while Enda was a sub in one and started the semi-final against Donegal before injury intruded after a lively start. Their father? Seamus Downey, All-Ireland-winning full-forward in 1993.
Their first cousin, Matthew Downey, started the group rounds against Monaghan and Fermanagh; he was especially prominent in the latter, and not just for his free-taking acumen. His father? Henry Downey, Derry’s history-making skipper in ’93.
Meanwhile, back home after three years in Australia with AFL outfit Collingwood, Anton Tohill appeared twice off the bench before starting against Donegal. His father? Anthony Tohill, Derry’s midfield talisman in ’93.
Think of it ... four sons of three Derry icons, making their senior baptisms virtually in tandem.
* * * * *
The thing about the GAA’s generation game is that there’s nothing unusual about all of the above. There are multiple examples of sons – and daughters – following in their parents’ footsteps.
It can be a daunting ask, subject to endless (at times unfavourable) comparison with your decorated dad, yet many go on to achieve even greater success. Think of all those next-generation Dubs: Alan and Bernard Brogan, James McCarthy, Dean Rock, Jack McCaffrey. For all the febrile debate about Dublin GAA’s funding model, maybe the gene pool contributed even more to their trophy haul.
It’s a moot point whether having a famous GAA parent qualifies as a blessing, a curse, or neither.
John Meyler became a household name more through his managerial exploits in hurling than as a dual player in his native Wexford and adopted Cork; but it’s safe to surmise that his future soccer international offspring was more often identified as ‘son of ’ growing up on Leeside.
“And really, as the father, you’re there to support him and try and get the best out of him ,” John stresses, the ultimate aim being that people will identify him as “David Meyler’s dad”.
Mick Lawlor’s father (Brian) and two of his uncles (Gabriel and Johnny) featured on the Laois team that lost the 1968 Leinster final to Longford; a younger uncle (Ger) played in their provincial final loss to Dublin in ’85.
Comparisons are inevitable but countering that, says Lawlor, “a lot of young guys now and even myself when I was 17 or 18, you’d be cocky. You thought you were the next best thing, and I wouldn’t say it shaped (me) a whole lot either.
“The one advantage that young people have, if their parents have played county football, is that they’re exposed to so much football. They’re going to games every day; their parents are probably going training three or four nights a week … it’s in their culture.”
Presuming that ‘culture’ transfers seamlessly from the nineties to the twenties, Derry would appear to be in good hands.
Tony Scullion was a full-back powerhouse on Eamonn Coleman’s trailblazing team of ’93. “It’s easy to talk the talk, but Henry Downey walked the walk,” Scullion proclaims. “Whenever he went on that field, he led the team by his actions. He was a great man, and he has a son now and nephews and hopefully they’ll have the same attributes.
“Don’t forget about Seamus Downey, what a player he was too … and what can you say about Anthony Tohill? Unbelievable.”
In his role as Ulster GAA football development officer, Scullion has previously worked close-up with Matthew Downey during their 2018 player academy for the province’s top U-15s.
“It’s very hard to judge lads at U-15 and whether they’re even going to be a club senior player, not alone county.
“But with Matthew, on and off the field, every box was ticked,” he recalls.
“You can never guarantee anything in life, especially at that age, but I’d be very surprised if that lad doesn’t go on and have a great career for his county. And possibly too, like his father, captain the county.”
Matthew has already shown his leadership credentials, skippering Derry to the delayed 2020 All-Ireland minor title. His late penalty clinched a dramatic final victory over Kerry last July; on the same day his cousin Calum Downey, brother of Shea and Enda, came off the bench.
More recently, Matthew Byron made headlines as a penalty-stopper – although Mick Lawlor recalls when the Courtwood clubman used to excel in attack for St Paul’s, an amalgamation that won Laois U-18 and U-17 titles.
In the era of wandering ball-playing ‘keepers, this background could help Byron even as he faces twin-pronged competition for the Laois No 1 jersey from Niall Corbet (last year’s incumbent) and Danny Bolger (who started the O’Byrne Cup final).
“He has played outfield for so long that he is a footballer. You give him the ball, he comes out and he’s very comfortable on it. There’s huge potential in Matthew,” Lawlor concludes.
Last word to John Meyler, who remembers John Kerins Snr as a calm yet assertive ‘keeper, with a great kick-out in his locker, and more importantly as a “lovely, nice fella.”
After his crowning club hour with Finbarr’s, Kerins went on to win back-to-back All-Irelands with Cork in 1989 and ’90 before he succumbed to cancer, aged just 39, in 2001. “Anyone dying like that who was young, it would knock the stuffing out of anybody. I suppose it happens in every club, but he was special,” says Meyler.
But to see his 29-year-old son now leading this club resurgence has gladdened the heart. “It’s one of those GAA things where the father played in goal; the son played in goal. It’s great to see the ’Barr’s winning after the gap.”
And with ‘J Kerins’ as first name on the programme.