Monday 18 November 2019

'I was broken and couldn't see a way back, on and off the field' - How the journey home led to Jack Byrne's resurrection

Back in the family home after leaving for Manchester City at 14, the Shamrock Rovers star is primed for tomorrow's FAI Cup final - with the memory of his father never far away

Jack Byrne with his mother Jackie at the family home in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Jack Byrne with his mother Jackie at the family home in Dublin. Photo: Justin Farrelly
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In the Byrne family home in Ballybough, the bathroom inside the front door is known as 'the shrine'. Jackie Byrne, a proud mother of four children, is happy for her guests to go in and have a look.

Anthony is a bricklayer, Stephen is an electrician and Jodie is a hairdresser but the walls of the shrine are filled with framed jerseys and newspaper clippings that chronicle youngest son Jack's career as a professional footballer.

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The story of Jack is wrapped in with the story of Jackie and, while the Shamrock Rovers playmaker is a loud presence wherever he goes, he's not the dominant voice in the abode he returned to last winter after almost nine years away. On the Monday of FAI Cup final week, Jackie was the life and soul of the busy house that she shares with Jodie, Jack and Jodie's daughter Grace.

Two more 'sons' are present for the Irish Independent's visit. Ex-Irish international Graham Barrett is Jack's agent and mentor. Niall Flynn is Stephen's best friend, and became an extended member of the Byrne clan in the aftermath of the period that changed their life. Amid the laughter, there is sadness.

As they pose for a group shot on the couch, Jackie points to a picture over her shoulder. Her husband, John, died in June 2007 after a long battle with cancer. In his final months, he would sit in his hospital bed watching recordings of his son turning heads on the football pitch with St Kevin's Boys.

'JOHNNER'

Jack as a baby with his mother Jackie, brothers Anthony and Stephen, sister Jodie and father John
Jack as a baby with his mother Jackie, brothers Anthony and Stephen, sister Jodie and father John

When Jack Byrne was 11 his father died, aged just 46. A close family became even closer, the fiery eagerness on the pitch became something with deeper roots and he found a greater determination.

Sunday Independent, November 1, 2015

Jackie: I have to say it was horrific. When Johnner died, I was overwhelmed by it. You're in limbo and trying to get the kids up for school. John did everything for Jack, absolutely everything. Jack even slept in with us like, we were that close. When he was dying he said to me, 'Jack is going to play for Ireland, he's special'. He always said it, I just said 'I know' but I didn't really 'know, know' because it was John who used to go to all of the games. I only went in the summer because it was freezing in the winter.

Niall: Steo was my best friend and they were like my second family anyway. When John passed away, Jackie didn't drive at the time or Steo didn't. They asked me if I would mind bringing Jack to his games until they got back on their feet. So that just brought myself and Jack closer, and the family closer, it became a habit then. I'd just had a kid myself when that happened so I used to get him minded to bring Jack to his games every week. To be honest, I was helping Jack, but it was more a case of (helping) Steo, he had big boots to fill. It was giving him a dig out.

The ‘shrine’ to Jack’s career in the downstairs bathroom at the family home
The ‘shrine’ to Jack’s career in the downstairs bathroom at the family home

Jackie: I used to go and watch his games, I'd sit with my friend Rose and him (Niall) and Stephen. We'd have our little chairs and our blankets and here we were 'he's not playing very well, he hasn't scored a goal'. That's the way we thought. That if you scored you were brilliant. I know the game now but at the time I didn't. But he was a joy to watch.

Jodie: To me he was only my brother but to everyone else he's like a little celeb. Everyone is always coming up 'how's your brother doing, how's this, how's that?' It's weird for me because he's just my brother. It's just family, there is no one better than the other, we're just brothers and sisters.

Niall: Most Saturdays were the same, we'd go to the (St Kevin's Boys) game, Jack would tell you how rubbish everyone else was and how great he was. He'd have to get a chicken fillet roll on the way home, we'd come back here and watch the games. It just became a habit, the three of us would bounce off each other in the car.

Jack: When he passed away I was going on a lot of trials. That's when it was starting really. I was 11 when he died and I was 12/13 going to clubs.

Jack Byrne with his sister, mother, agent Graham Barrett (left) and friend Niall Flynn
Jack Byrne with his sister, mother, agent Graham Barrett (left) and friend Niall Flynn

Jodie: You were away every weekend.

Jack: It was my release but it was difficult as well because at that age you don't really know what you're going through. It was only really a couple of years ago that it hits you and you can come to terms with what actually went on. The couple of years after he died, it was all a big blur. You come to 14 and you just have to make a decision 'right, this is where I'm going to go.'

MOVING AWAY

He's become one of the top marksmen in the UEFA Youth League this season and a permanent fixture at the heart of Patrick Vieira's elite development squad. Jack Byrne's journey to the top of the game has been the greatest challenge he's faced. He packed his bags at the age of 14 and left the family home to chisel out a football career.

The intro from the 2015 'Home From Home' documentary, a Manchester City production

Byrne in action for Ireland against Bulgaria in September. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile
Byrne in action for Ireland against Bulgaria in September. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Jackie: I missed him so much. I lost John, I lost my Dad and then I lost him. I couldn't deal with it. When I had to hand him over to another family I was like 'oh, sweet living god'. Man City brought me round interviewing families. How many was it, Graham, about 10 or 12?

Graham: Jesus, yeah.

Jackie: Graham said to me 'Jackie, he has to go over'. But he wanted to. Didn't you Jack.

Jack: I did, yeah.

Jackie: It wasn't that I didn't like any of the families, they just weren't like me.

Niall: You're one of a kind in fairness!

Jackie: Ah, the houses, they were spotless. I'd say they had OCD or something. Remember the one with the big huge mast beside the house. I said 'my son's not living beside a mast, he'll get cancer'. But anyway, we ended up getting Paul and Kath, the best in the world.

Jack: The best in the world. Paul's a gent, isn't he?

Jackie: I wasn't great for about a year. I would go into his room and be crying and everything. Then going over to him and having to come back

Jodie: Coming back was the hardest thing.

Jackie: We'd Skype him and he had this yellow wall behind him. I'd see it and say (she pretends to cry) 'ah look at him, Jodie, he's at the yellow wall, the yellow wall again'. I felt he was lonely.

Jack: Sometimes I was, yeah.

Jackie: Every night we would sit here for hours. She'd be doing people's hair and we'd be talking to him. I knew when he was down because he would talk to me for hours.

Jack: When the football is going well you'd be happier than when it's not. You're usually only talking about the game or if I scored or how it went. Sometimes when you haven't played and you haven't actually done anything all weekend what do you talk about, ya know? It was great when they came over but when they went home it was such a downer that sometimes you'd be saying 'I don't really want to get them to come over and then have to say goodbye again'.

ROCK BOTTOM

Jack Byrne has agreed a deal to join Shamrock Rovers. The 22-year-old is coming home in a bid to kickstart his career after a frustrating spell in Scotland with Kilmarnock.

Byrne needs to get back playing regularly again after a challenging 2018. He was part of the Oldham team that was relegated from League One and his contract was terminated after he was frozen out of their pre-season preparations - with manager Frankie Bunn stating it was due to disciplinary reasons.

Byrne was tipped for big things in his youth when he left St Kevin's Boys to join Man City and he starred in a loan spell with Dutch side Cambuur in the 2015/16 campaign. He also trained with the Ireland senior squad and harboured ambitions of going to the Euros in France.

But a subsequent loan to Blackburn didn't work out and he then joined Wigan after officially leaving City. He went from there to an up and down year with Oldham.

A statement from Kilmarnock said: "Kilmarnock Football Club has mutually agreed to terminate the contract of Jack Byrne with immediate effect due to personal and family reasons and his desire to return to Ireland."

Irish Independent, December 7, 2018

Jack: I was probably wasting my career away where I was at Kilmarnock. I needed to do something to get the hunger back and get the fight back in my belly.

Jackie: You were struggling mentally at that time.

Jack: I was broken. I wasn't in a good place.

Jackie: We went over; me, Jodie and the baby Grace. Normally he would play with the baby but he was very quiet for about three days. I said to Jodie we'd make a nice Sunday roast and get him sitting round the table talking and we'll try and get stuff out of him. I made the dinner, he comes in, says 'thanks Ma', that was it. He sits at the table and the fork is like that (she makes an action of Byrne twirling the fork around his plate). I said 'oh sweet Jesus, there's something wrong'. I said 'Jack, what's wrong? You can tell me anything'. He just says 'get me out of here.' I was straight on the phone to Graham, I was panicking, I told him Jack's not right. Graham just said 'right, don't worry about it', as usual, like he always does. He is my hero. Graham just said to bring him home with us that weekend.

Graham: In the 10 years I looked after Jack, I never had a phonecall or a conversation with Jackie that worried me as much as that time. It was serious. You knew on the phone he was down but when he did come home you could see exactly in his face he was broken. Like he's a little b****x isn't he, a messer, but he was really, really in a bad place.

Jack: I couldn't see a way back, on and off the field. I kind of hid myself away for a while.

Jackie: Graham just said 'leave it with me' and he had him home, at a club, in two weeks. I couldn't believe it. Graham, I'm glad I get the opportunity to say to your face. Thanks for everything you have done for us as a family.

Graham: Ah, look, I retired at the same time as Jack was beginning. They have been much better for me than I have for them. It's hard to retire at 27, you know, being around Jackie, Jack, Jodie, the other players, it helps you recover. You're never really recovered when you retire. You're always thinking about your career. The job I fell into helped me. It's very kind what Jackie said, I love her, but they have done far more for me than I have for them.

Jack: I was lucky coming home that it wasn't a financial decision. If it was, I might have stayed at Oldham and hung on. I was one of the highest earners there. I knew I didn't have to try and nick a few quid somewhere. Maybe somebody else a little bit older, would have to maybe stay around for an extra few bob, they wouldn't have an option to come back to a Shamrock Rovers. I was lucky enough that I got good deals.

Graham: The way they handled Jack, with money, they did incredibly well.

Jackie: You weren't allowed to have your money, Jack. I had it. In a joint account. He wasn't allowed touch it without me. And I wasn't allowed to touch it without him. What did we give him at Man City? £50 a week? I remember him asking me if he could buy a belt. And Graham would ring and say, 'Ah Jackie, let him get the belt.

'How much is it?

'£250?' - (raises voice) '£250?!'

Graham said, 'he needs some reward' and I said 'ok, get the belt.'

Graham: If there's a template, then this is the family. If you're talking to a 14- or 15-year-old kid now who is going to a big club, you'd nearly want to sit them on that couch and put Jackie in the room with the family for two hours. That's why he's going to do well. That's why when he falls down, he'll get back up again because he's got good family."

THE SECOND HOME

The Dubliner (Stephen Bradley) was the "next big thing" when he left for London in his mid-teens but, by his own admission, lost his way badly after getting too much too young at Arsenal.

"You're 17 and come from Jobstown in Tallaght and you're living in London with your own house and car. It's ridiculous. It's not right, and that's why we fail."

Irish Times, November 2014

Graham: The football decision was a simple one. Stephen (Bradley - Rovers manager) was Jack. I lived with Stephen at Arsenal. Stephen was Jack at 15 to 21/22 and has said quite publicly that he could have given more to his career as a football player. I knew he was the perfect guy to cuddle him and give him a kick up the a**e and that's what he's done. We actually spoke about it, we didn't tell him (Jack), but we all spoke about how this might be a brilliant opportunity if he buys into it. We even said privately away from him that he could make inroads internationally.

Jackie: I went with Graham (to meet Bradley). He knew I was very concerned about Jack. I just said to him 'I want my son happy'. They were saying, 'This is what we're going to do, this is the plan, we know he's not fit but we'll get him there, you're not to worry, we're going to get him in and look after him for you' and I absolutely trusted him.

Jack: He (Bradley) cares. I can see that he actually cares about me. I wouldn't want to let him down because I probably wouldn't have signed me looking at the person I was and the player I was then. It would be a massive risk. For him to put that faith in me and tell me I'm going to play every week, and be one of their main men, it gave me that boost I needed. After pre-season, I could see the work I was doing was paying off. I started feeling a lot better in myself and it didn't matter if I was playing for Barcelona or Shamrock Rovers.

Graham: Jack didn't fail at Oldham. He was one of the standout players in League One. The ownership changed, he was earning too much money and they made him train with the kids. He went to Kilmarnock, he wasn't quite fit.

Niall: People think that Jack is automatically coming back to worse facilities. Jack was at Oldham and the training pitch was called off every day. From a football point of view, the facilities they have and the stadium they have, Rovers was better than that.

Jack: I'm back here and we have a lot of Irish players in the squad. I can bounce off them. We go out together. I would have known some of them since I was 16, 17 years of age. It's good to have that with your team-mates. And with the financial thing, at least I'm getting paid on time. At Oldham, sometimes you were going three or four weeks or longer without getting paid. You've a relegation battle and you're choosing not to pay half your players. Being back here has opened my eyes, that it wasn't the worst thing for me to do.

Jackie: I was crying when he came back I couldn't believe it because I was never really a Mammy to him. I was a Mammy up until 11 and 12 but then I didn't feel like I was his Mammy when he was away. I was jealous of Kath and Paul (Jodie grabs her hand) I was, because I wanted to be there for him, I wanted to be his Mammy, so I am his Mammy now and I love it.

Jack: It's making up for lost time, isn't it?

Jackie: It was absolutely amazing when he came home, he was just so different. He was happy, I mean that's all we've wanted for you in your life ever was for you to be happy. It doesn't matter where you are or who you are . . . once you're here with your Mammy (she laughs). And you've matured. Nobody will be treating you like a lump of meat now!

Jodie: Seeing him every day, I was like 'oh my god'. I haven't lived with him for so long. At the start we were trying to get used to it. I'm 27, he's 23. We were killing each other. But I'd be very protective of him, he'd be very protective of me. We go out and do stuff with each other, me, him and my baby (Grace). It was weird getting used to him being home but now it's great, we love it. I wouldn't have it any other way. And the best part, I think, is being able to go and watch him play. We would fly over before, but now we can go every week and it's literally just up the road, it's brilliant.

Jackie: Yeah, we love it. We'll all be there on Sunday. And Rovers are going to win.

THE CALL

Shamrock Rovers midfielder Jack Byrne has been rewarded for his fine form at club level by being drafted into the Republic of Ireland squad for the UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia. Ireland manager Mick McCarthy watched the Dubliner produce a man of the match performance in Rovers' 3-0 victory over Sligo Rovers last Friday and was suitably impressed.

FAI website, March 17, 2019

Jackie: Remember when you came in and told me. I started roaring and crying. It was Paddy's Day, wasn't it? We were out in the pub ... And he runs into the pub like this (she mimics a run) 'Ma, ma . . . ' - and I'm going 'Did he crash the car? Did he crash the car? You can tell me anything. Just tell me.' He couldn't say it. And then next of all he started roaring and crying. He said 'I'm in the Ireland squad'. I said 'AHHHH!' - and then it went all over the pub and the DJ, Paul Gavin, puts on 'We're all part of Jackie's army' (starts clapping) and the whole pub is jumping around the place, the Clonliffe House. So then, I rang him (Niall) and said 'Oh Jesus, my nerves are gone Flynner'. You were going over to the hotel with Jack that night. And me and her (Jodie) were running home, half locked, and we came back and here he is 'pack this ma, pack that' and I was like 'oh my nerves, my nerves!'.

Niall: We spoke going out to the hotel about will we go over to Gibraltar. We spent the journey talking about it, thinking 'Jesus we'll have to go won't we.'

Jackie: Yeah we went to Gibraltar. I had the ashes and all. I was waving them at him. I do bring him (Johnner) to every game, the little pouch, yeah. I have the ashes. I used to put them in Jack's boots. We spread some ashes over Dollymount Bridge, because the kids needed somewhere to go. We got a bit in the crematorium, I had my Dad there and he's there, I got a double (space in the wall). I bought my Ma one as well and she doesn't want to go in it. I said to her 'sake ma, I'm trying to save a few bob here!' - "I'm going down," she says. I says well I'm going in the wall. I bring him (Johnner) everywhere. He's been everywhere.

Niall: She gets charged extra on the Ryanair flights!

Jackie: I remember sitting with my arms around him while I was waving at Jack. And Jack was running up and down the Gibraltar pitch. And there I am, 'Oh Jesus, Johnner, look at him,' because John always said 'He will play for Ireland'. Always. Didn't yer Da always say it to you?

Jack: He did yeah

Jackie: When it happened and when he was picked, it was like 'Oh Jesus, Johnner, you were right'. You know that feeling. Aww.

THE DEBUT

Jack Byrne is a man in a hurry. He has just had the rare honour of winning a senior cap as a player plying his trade in the League of Ireland.

But playing, rather than talking, is more important to the 23-year-old. "Do I have to do this, I'm dying to go and see my family," he says when asked to speak about his senior debut against Bulgaria. Byrne was one of the talking points as the sub claimed an assist for one of Ireland's goals and helped set up another.

Irish Independent, September 11, 2019

Niall: When he got called to come on, there was a pause because the ball didn't go out of play for a while. That feeling, where we knew he was going on, it was just special. We all probably knew it would happen eventually but it's been such a rollercoaster.

Jackie: It's not like he hasn't worked hard. He's worked so hard. And he's only a little baby. He was only a baby. You know what I mean. It's tough, being out there on your own.

Jack: Yeah, it's hard.

Jackie: He was the best on that pitch. I don't care what anyone says. Two assists. What more did you want?

Niall: There was no chance of taking him down that night, I remember the smile.

Jackie: We were all there, his uncles (John's brothers) and all.

Graham: They just let everyone in.

Jack: My family did a video of behind the goal when I took the corner. It just happened to be exactly where it went out and I took the corner. I remember them sending it to me after and I was thinking 'f**king hell like, what just happened'.

Graham: It's nice that people are now seeing him in the light that I've always seen him in. We still batter him but he's a good kid.

Jack: Being around people in Ireland and people seeing you day to day and how you carry yourself. It's 100pc helped me. The perception people had of me probably was big-time and flashy

Graham: That perception has really annoyed me because he's a great kid, you know. He's a kid. That's a common denominator. Kids make mistakes. They mature when they get older. It's that simple. And he hasn't played his best yet, no chance.

Niall: There's so much more.

Graham: He's done great. Don't get me wrong. When he was in Holland, we were at Ajax twice, PSV twice, Feyenoord twice, and he was as good technically as any player on those teams, easily. He had to work off the ball, which he's got better at, and start finding a position to play on the pitch. In terms of his ability I feel there's about 25 per cent more to go, which is exciting.

Jack: Yeah, I feel the same. Definitely.

TOMORROW AND BEYOND

Shamrock Rovers insist they are not looking to cash in on Jack Byrne, claiming a move away would only happen if it was "right for all parties."

Hoops boss Stephen Bradley stressed yesterday that Byrne is a key part of their plans for the remaining two years of his contract.

Bradley said: "If that comes down the line, it comes down the line. But there have been no phone calls, no chats with clubs. A few years ago, Jack may have got carried away and sidetracked but he's in a good place."

Irish Mirror, September 20, 2019

Jack: We're staying in Carton House on Saturday night. I probably would have rathered to stay here, it takes you out of a routine.

Jackie: Jaysus are yas? I didn't know that now.

Jack: Yeah it's brutal (he grins). Staying in Carton House, with a big double bed. It's brutal.

Jackie: He came home into a little tiny box room, God bless him. Not one complaint out of him

Jack: I have to put the phone out the window to send a text! It doesn't even fit in the room.

Jackie: He'd his own place in Manchester, a big huge house he has. And I was saying, 'Jesus, how is he coping, coming home from a big huge house and all that. To come home and to have less money and a tiny little bedroom and he goes to me, 'Ma, I'm grand'

Niall: Even in Holland, the club rented him a massive house, with four bedrooms wasn't it? He was 19.

Jodie: When you came back, you were getting a house. And you were like, 'No I actually don't want it, I want to stay here'. It didn't bother him.

Jackie: I'm happy with him here. I don't know how I'd feel (if he left). If he wants to go, there's nothing I can do. But I'd be very sad. (pause). That's all I can say. I love having him here. He's gas, the craic he brings to the house.

Jodie: The house is alive again with him back.

Jackie: The slaggings and all, it's great isn't it Jack.

Jack: Ah it's brilliant yeah

Jackie: It's great having a man back in the house again, it's great. I love it. Would you like him to go back Jodie?

Jodie: No, no I wouldn't. I think if he's happy going back then, yeah, of course, but we'd always be over with you. You wouldn't be getting rid of us.

Jackie: He used to be embarrassed asking us to go over when he wasn't playing. He only told us that when he got home. I was like 'Why were you embarrassed?' We were going over to see you. Not to see you play.

Jack: If I did go back, I wouldn't do that anymore. I'd be more relaxed with my time and have my family over for longer periods. Some people have gone away at 25 and spent eight or nine years away. I've spent eight or nine years away already, I've just done it at a younger age. I'll be more ready for it if I did go back. This is the most relaxed I've been, the happiest I've been. It's been a good year.

Jackie: It's flying in

Jack: It is. This time last year, I could never have imagined sitting here and being this chilled out about everything. I still love football.

But if I have a bad game, it's not the end of the world. It's not life and death. I understand that.

Irish Independent

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