Saturday 24 February 2018

Cocky 'keeper mauled by Cats

Stephen Byrne wants a clean sheet against Kilkenny this afternoon. He has shipped too many goals against the Cats in the last two years, as he admitted to Dermot Crowe.

OFFALY'S goalkeeper breezes in and is immediately confronted by a barrage of unflattering statistics. Number of championship matches played: 17. Goals conceded: 23. Number of matches against Kilkenny: five. Goals conceded: 16. "I haven't a good run against Kilkenny at all," Stephen Byrne admits, launching his bid for understatement of the year.

In two of those championship matches since Byrne's debut in 1998, Kilkenny have gone on the rampage and scored five goals. The 1999 Leinster final brought vengeful retaliation for their All-Ireland final defeat a year earlier. Last season they put another five past Byrne on the big day in September.

"Don't think I've looked at the video to be honest," he says. "From a goalkeeper's point of view, to concede five goals in an All-Ireland final is not nice no matter whether it's your fault or not your fault. I don't like conceding goals in training, let alone a match like that."

Last year's All-Ireland final arrived with Offaly in high spirits following their supernatural win over Cork. The match had barely caught fire when DJ Carey seized on a minor error by Niall Claffey, headed towards goal, and Byrne was the only man left facing him. He needed Carey to make an imperfect connection. A miracle, basically.

Goals two, three and four whizzed past. Byrne managed to get some contact on Charlie Carter's but not enough and for all the others he was a helpless prop. Rounding it off, substitute Eddie Brennan came on near the end, scythed his way through a dispirited defence, and brought Byrne's average goal concession rate against Kilkenny to just over three per game.

"A lot of people say that we played our All-Ireland against Cork; it wasn't so. I think that with Kilkenny last year, it was going to take a super team to beat them," he reflects. "I suppose we went in thinking it would work out like '98. But they were a team that did not want to lose and probably couldn't afford to lose."

In the unglamorous context of a league hurling match against Antrim on a wet day in Birr, Babs Keating introduced Stephen Byrne to senior inter-county hurling. The goalkeeping post was then held by Liam Coughlan after David Hughes' errors against Wexford in 1997 closed off his career. Illness to Coughlan gave Byrne a foot in the door and he has held his ground ever since.

The timing helped Offaly were about to win an All-Ireland but he made the most of the chance that fell his way. Wins over Meath and Wexford were embellished by two clean-sheets before Kilkenny made three incisions in the Leinster final, two of them coming from 20-metre DJ Carey frees. The backdoor swung open and Offaly walked through, leaving Babs behind.

Against Antrim in the next match, Byrne gifted Alistair Elliott an early goal but it wasn't the worst day to make an error; Offaly recovered to win comfortably. He shot to prominence over the course of an incident-packed trilogy with Clare. In the decisive game at Thurles Joe Dooley's five points and Byrne's hat-trick of crucial saves made all the difference. By the end of the season, aged 21, he was an All-Star and Young Hurler of the Year.

Like many goalkeepers, there is a slightly eccentric or giddy streak to him, what others might interpret as pure cockiness. Some blame was attached to him for one of Kilkenny's five goals in the 1999 Leinster final when a mix-up occurred between himself and Martin Hanamy.

"The ball came through and he (Byrne) says to me, 'let it run,' so I just half contested it, let it run on, and up jumps (DJ) Carey and buries it. If you look at the clip you'll see that my feet never got off the ground," recalls Hanamy today.

"I turned to him and said 'feck you, anyway.' If you look at it you can see his mouth going and people have asked me what he said back but I never noticed. I couldn't hear a word he said. Even Jim Troy asked me the same question just six months ago."

HANAMY praises Byrne's goalkeeping record with Offaly, noting his huge influence in '98, but the two were never particularly close. Byrne belonged to a new emerging generation and many of the men positioned nearest to him on the field were approaching the end of their careers.

"We were struggling for a goalie in '98," recalls Hanamy, who retired at the end of the 1999 season. "With Hughes and Coughlan it was much of a muchness between them. Byrne is very well motivated, and maybe cocky but he played well for Offaly."

Despite their differences, or maybe because of them, Byrne laments the passing of Hanamy from the Offaly defence. "Martin," he says, "was probably the most influential of all the backs. He was, in his own way, a quiet leader. When you're taking out men like that you have to fill the gap or you're going to be in serious trouble."

One of his current team-mates attributes such differences to the generation gap and a natural clash of personalities. Neither Byrne's interests nor upfront manner would make him an ideal room-mate of Hanamy's or Kevin Kinahan, but on the field they were bound by an unswerving cause.

"You do hear people giving out about him, that maybe '98 had gone to his head," says a member of the Offaly team. "Maybe some of the full-back line resented all the roaring and shouting and being told what to do."

Defensively, Offaly as everywhere else haven't changed all that much but last year injuries to Brian Whelahan and Kevin Martin were exacerbated by the long-term withdrawal of Hubert Rigney. Even Byrne tore his first hamstring just three weeks before the All-Ireland final. Intensive treatment from Alan Kelly had him right again in a fortnight.

This time, with Rigney restored, they have a more complete pack and a healthier one. But it will be some feat if Byrne is to enjoy his first clean-sheet against Kilkenny in the championship. As he walked into the dressing-room after training on Tuesday night Kevin Martin asked: "How's the eye?" He feels it's right but you never make assumptions in this trade.

"Brendan Cummins' comments last week were totally correct. You are going to be a bollocks if you make a mistake and you're that close to being one the whole time it's unreal."

Mistakes have been rare enough but he's now got some competition snapping at his heels in the guise of Birr goalkeeper Brian Mullins, whose greatest obstacle is said to be his almost chronically laid-back nature. Even by Offaly standards. During the All-Ireland club final against Sarsfields Pat Joe Whelahan told Johnny Pilkington to stick tight with Joe Cooney, then told Mullins to keep the puck-outs away from the same player. When Pat Joe moved away, Mullins turned to Pilkington and asked: "Which one is Joe Cooney?"

But he is an excellent goalkeeper and now that he appears to be persisting with an inter-county quest the current incumbent has to keep on his toes. Byrne's dedication is obvious and one of his main strengths. He firmly believes in putting in the hard work just as much as the outfield players.

"The fitter you are the better you are going to react," he says. "Plus, you're mentally right as well. I wouldn't be happy after the Christmas when you're after putting on a few pounds and you're trying to get it off."

The earliest match he remembers is the 1982 All-Ireland football final. Aged six, Martin Furlong was the goalkeeper he worshipped most. "He was a tremendous goalkeeper. I know I'm going away from the hurling but he had everything: courage, guts, good stopper of the ball, good kick-out. I would love to say when I'm finished that I was the closest to Martin Furlong in hurling."

MICHAEL BOND'S return has stirred hopes of another odyssey comparable to Byrne's first, and most memorable, three years ago. "Michael came in and said we have to aim high, we have to aim for an All-Ireland simple as that. We reckon this is our All-Ireland on Sunday. It's a long, long summer for whoever loses."

And last year? "It's in the past. If I keep looking back on that game then Sunday will be a disaster as well and I won't be concentrating probably. That's all gone now. Kilkenny won the All-Ireland and Sunday is a totally new game."

A win and a clean-sheet now that would be something.

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