Saturday 18 November 2017

Goalkeeper Byrne staying big in defence for her county's sake

Mayo 'keeper Yvonne Byrne saves a penalty against Cork in the semi-final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Mayo 'keeper Yvonne Byrne saves a penalty against Cork in the semi-final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Stay big for as long as you can. That thought ran through the mind of Mayo goalkeeper Yvonne Byrne as she stood in goal after Cork were awarded a penalty with only minutes remaining in their All-Ireland Ladies SFC semi-final in Cavan earlier this month.

If they score the penalty, Cork would grab the lead by a point. Byrne stood in the middle of the goals. This was it.

This was the time to save the championship for Mayo and see them through to their first All-Ireland final in a decade. Making an All-Ireland final would also prove wrong the people who called her and some of her team-mates "trouble-makers" for wanting better conditions which resulted in Mayo being pulled out of the 2010 championship by their own county board.

Stay big for as long as you can, Byrne thought, but back in January she questioned how long more she could do that for Mayo. She started playing inter-county football at the age of 16 - 16! She turns 35 later this year. Could she dedicate another year to Mayo? Circumstances have changed, she has other commitments. Her boyfriend lives in Cavan, she wants to spend more time with her dad who got sick four years ago and is wheelchair-bound at home.

Her dad has always been her biggest supporter. The last time Mayo won the All-Ireland in 2003, which was her fourth All-Ireland medal, her parents were part of the management and support team - her dad was the kit-man and her mother was the liaison officer. There's a picture at home of them on the pitch after Mayo won. The magic of the three of them together.

But Byrne's life has changed since then. How much more can she give to her county?

More, as it turned out.

Standing in the goal in Breffni Park, Byrne stayed big for as long as she could. Eimear Scally of Cork kicked the penalty. Byrne dived to the right. Right decision, right timing. Mayo won the semi-final by two points.

Most of the attention after that win was on Byrne's friend, Cora Staunton, after she ran up a tally of 1-9. Staunton, Byrne and their other friend, Martha Carter, are the most senior and experienced players on this Mayo team but they also have a great friendship away from football. At the start of every season, especially in recent years, the three of them would discuss whether to give it another year of playing inter-county football.

Which of them made the final call for them to stay on with Mayo this year?

"I'm going to say Cora was the instigator. Every other year it was probably me, I would have put the wheels in motion other years," Byrne says. "But this year I took a bit of a back seat. Myself and Cora would probably be the most outspoken and then Martha would just go along with us - she's probably the easy-going one among us."

So, they stayed. Cora, Yvonne and Martha. The power of the three of them together.

But in football circles, Yvonne isn't known as Yvonne Byrne.

"Where did you get the nick-name 'Crazy' from?"

'Crazy' laughs.

She's not sure of the exact origin, whether it was because she liked playing jokes or because of her reputation for being tough on the pitch when she played outfield. She was called 'Killer' at one stage but that wasn't ideal for those like her mother roaring her on from the sideline. So her nickname was reformatted to 'Crazy'. "It will die with me when the retirement sets in," she laughs.

But Byrne knows the other side of how an unwanted name can stick. She was one of the players who went to meet the central council of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association in 2010 when three Mayo clubs appealed against the decision of the county board to withdraw Mayo from the championship. This followed the resignation of their manager Pat Costello after he claimed he was undermined by players. Byrne said the panel came up with a list of about 20 basic things they needed to improve on going into the championship that year.

"There would have been a lot of things said about a couple of us older girls and we would have been branded a certain way which would have been totally inaccurate. Sometimes, if you throw enough mud, it sticks. We were begging for high standards and to be branded trouble-makers or a lot worse… that was hurtful," Byrne admits. "To prove people wrong was a big motivator as well because there were so many people that doubted us then. All we ever wanted was the best for Mayo football. To get back to the All-Ireland final means a lot because it means that all the struggles weren't for nothing."

Last Sunday, Byrne and her team-mates sat in Croke Park and watched the All-Ireland final. Byrne kept her eyes on David Clarke and Stephen Cluxton. She saw the pressure from Mayo on Cluxton's kick-outs and Jason Sherlock passing a message onto the Dubs goalkeeper.

Human

"It just goes to show that even though how good Cluxton is, that he is human, there is pressure, you can't always be perfect and sometimes you need a bit of help whether it be from a team-mate or from the sideline."

This has been a tough week in Mayo. "I know everybody in Mayo would love to win an All-Ireland, whether we win or lose, it's not going to make up for the men," Byrne says.

This weekend is about another Mayo team. About women like Yvonne Byrne who defends her team whether that's through saving a penalty or demanding better conditions to help this Mayo team get to where they are this weekend.

She's staying big for her county as long as she can.

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