'I was just mad to come home and play for Louth again'
Former AFL star Ciarán Byrne tells Alan Waldron why he gave up on his Aussie Rules career with Carlton to return to his first sporting love
Ciarán Byrne hobbles into a Dundalk cafe, having held the door ajar with one crutch before hoisting himself over the threshold with the other.
He is soaked from the sweeping rain and still aching from that afternoon's probing physio session, but a wide smile beams across his face.
While he is in the middle of yet another lengthy spell of injury rehabilitation, he is home for good - and there is nowhere else he would rather be.
As the sodden Louth evening loses the last of its light, Byrne remains a poster boy for festive cheer. He missed this time of year. Beaches and barbecues will never be appropriate December traditions for someone who was reared in this part of the world.
The smell of fresh coffee and the rhythmical hum of salsa music fill the air of the Central American-themed cafe, offering patrons welcome relief from the elements.
Make no mistake though, Byrne's choice of venue doesn't reflect an itching desire to see more of the world in the short-term, nor does it represent a longing for Melbourne - an Australian city known as much for its vibrant cafe culture as it is for a bulging sporting calendar that ranks alongside anywhere else in the world.
The former Louth prodigy signed for Carlton in August 2013, as an 18-year-old, and while he had more downs than ups in the AFL - including a torn ACL, and serious quad and hamstring issues - he has no regrets about his decision to try his hand at a professional sporting career.
In the end it was the creeping shadow of homesickness, and the toll of so many serious injuries, that convinced him to bring a remarkable chapter of his life to a close and to restart a senior inter-county career that barely got the chance to get going before his switch Down Under.
The prospect too of playing for club and county alongside his older brother and role model Declan (29) was another weighty factor in his decision to say farewell to the AFL.
Byrne's tale is quite different to many other Irish players who have returned home in that he had proven himself to be an extremely capable AFL player, albeit in a Carlton team that failed to reach the finals (top eight in the table) throughout his stay.
When fit, Byrne was a marauding half-back of real quality. Whispers of his potential travelled back to his homeland; the sky was the limit, and he had all the attributes to become one of Ireland's most successful converts.
That great Aussie Rules potential will ultimately end up being largely unfulfilled, though, as after playing 22 AFL games over four seasons, it was ultimately an injury in a Louth intermediate championship final - a match that Carlton, in a rare move for an AFL club, gave him permission to play - that made up his mind to come home for good.
Byrne's beloved St Mochta's, a small club from Louth village, 11km south-west of Dundalk, with similar playing and population numbers to Longford giant-killers Mullinalaghta, will be playing senior football for the first time in 38 years in 2019 after seeing off St Fechin's in a thrilling intermediate decider in October.
The prodigal son was introduced from the bench in the county semi-final and final, but his cameo against St Fechin's was short-lived - he was carried off the field in excruciating pain only minutes after his introduction, having broken his ankle when landing awkwardly after competing for a high ball.
"I only came on in the second half, I was only on about 10 minutes or something, I had kicked a point from full-forward," recalls Byrne, who turned 24 earlier this month.
"We lost a couple of balls in midfield so me and my brother switched. The second kick-out, I went up to win the ball and landed on my ankle, and the rest is history. It was very unfortunate.
"But that's football. I've been injured before and I've gotten back to my best so there is no reason why I can't do that again. I was probably 70:30 in favour of moving home before the latest injury. I had chats with Carlton throughout the year, and with my family, my managers.
"I had given five years, I had put in a lot of hard work and probably didn't get as much of a reward as I deserved because of all the injuries.
"I suppose it just got to the point where I weighed up what's more important in life, football at home or football in Australia, and at the end of the day home is home, I'm such a home-bird. I was just mad to come home, be around family and friends and play Gaelic.
"AFL, at the end of the day, it put food on the table and paid me some good money but I wasn't around the people I love most and the sport I love playing. Everyone said you are crazy going back to the cold weather but I actually love it. I had my time in Australia on the beaches and enjoyed it.
"But now I'm up in Darver (Louth centre of excellence) and it gets down to -6C. I'm in the gym at the minute but I love that side of it, in the mucky weather, digging in. That's what I missed the most, being in the community, getting to know all the lads. It's great to be back involved again."
The transition back to rural Irish surroundings will be a difficult one after more than five years in Australia's second-largest city, but Byrne, who has recently begun a sales role with Dundalk-based sportswear brand Defy, is confident that he can adjust to a quieter pace of life.
"Coming from Melbourne where you're surrounded by four million people and then coming back to a Louth village and it's mostly cows around the place… it's a massive culture shock but I'm home so I'm happy regardless.
"The build-up to Christmas, I hadn't done that for the last six years so I enjoyed that, spending quality time with family and friends. Other than that I just want to settle back in and gradually build myself back into life here in Ireland."
Byrne is radiant with optimism, a natural disposition that has no doubt helped him overcome so many serious injuries with such remarkable success.
Naturally, he is already looking forward to channelling that positive outlook into new ventures in 2019, explaining that he sees no reason why Louth can't make huge strides under new boss Wayne Kierans, or why St Mochta's can't be crowned senior champions in their first year back at the top table.
The Wee County have been playing a dizzying game of snakes and ladders in recent times.
In fact, Louth and Kildare are the only two counties who have changed division in the National Football League for each of the past five seasons.
The 2018 campaign was a particularly forgettable one, Louth losing all seven of their Division 2 matches before championship defeats to Carlow and Leitrim ultimately saw Pete McGrath depart as manager just 10 months into a two-year term.
However, there is a renewed optimism in the county under Kierans, and Byrne is hoping to return for the latter stages of their Division 3 campaign before attention turns to the summer, and a Leinster first-round clash against Wexford.
The bittersweet prize for the winners of that tussle is a provincial quarter-final against a Dublin side that by September 1 next year could be regarded as the greatest Gaelic football team of all time.
"I have learned a lot over the last six years that is going to help me as a person and as a player," Byrne insists.
"I have developed things that Louth have probably never heard of and hopefully I can bring that into Gaelic football and help them in some way.
"The footballers are definitely there in Louth, I have always said that, so hopefully we can win Division 3 this year and get back to Division 2. It was too hard for us last year under Pete McGrath and we obviously struggled."
Recent news that Louth have purchased a site in Dundalk to build a much-needed new stadium has been welcomed around the county, and Byrne is keen to highlight that they desperately need an adequate championship home to call their own.
"We need a county ground. I can't wait to play in my own county ground.
"First and foremost though, I can't wait to play for Louth again. It's giving me goosebumps just thinking about it."
Byrne will visit Australia in two months' time to say goodbye to everyone at Carlton.
That long-haul flight will be a bit easier to board, though. There will be no emotional embraces at Dublin airport because home is no longer on the other side of the world.
Byrne's compass is firmly fixed towards Louth once again, and that makes him happier than any contract ever could.