Sunday 26 January 2020

A pity Irish football did not serve Byrne as well as she served it

Hanging up the boots: Emma Byrne Photo: Sportsfile
Hanging up the boots: Emma Byrne Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Perhaps it is because they say presidents serve their country that folks also routinely refer to those who play sports in the same way. And so, as Emma Byrne retires, it seems to make all types of sense to say she "served" her country.

But we're not so sure if that's the right word at all. Or if the sentence is even the right way round.

Way back when she made her international debut, Mary Robinson was still housed in presidential residence.

The eternal candle in the Phoenix Park window served not merely as a beacon to the displaced diaspora beyond this country but also helped illuminate the pathway towards heightened respect for women's' rights within it.

Emma Byrne was just one of so many Irish who would be forced to burn a metaphorical candle at both ends; doggedly pursuing an illustrious career abroad out of the sight and mind of her native country for a quarter of a century.

Her unique talents acquired little or no interest from anyone of any gender outside all but her closest circle of family and friends from her Leixlip home.

Though her income and fame were clearly never capable of matching those of her male counterparts, her vast achievements more than compensated for the relative anonymity within which she participated.

The netminder's honours, particularly during a stellar 17-year career at Arsenal, remain - and will for many, many years to come - unmatched by any male or female.

After winning a treble in her first season, she then amassed an astonishing array of winners' medals - nine league titles, nine FA Cups, five League Cups and a UEFA Cup.

The once rather awkward, if already tenacious 14-year-old who first played under-age soccer for Ireland would also win a record 134 caps for her country but her status as one of her sport's greats would only be firmly established upon foreign fields.

Her first senior cap had already arrived, in March of 1996 against Belgium in Bray, after a short interregnum when the FAI had effectively culled the international side, after withdrawing it from the 1995 Euros. They would be reconstituted but would struggle to become rehabilitated.

We know now, of course, about their ongoing struggles to become recognised for their representation, of how they were forced to change out of their international gear in the public toilets of various airports, simply because their association demanded they return their playing gear.

Which is why, in her retirement statement, her primary thanks was proffered not to the FAI, but to the PFAI and SIPTU, the twin architects who delivered to her team the most basically acceptable tenets of decency.

Byrne and her team-mates may have achieved little upon the international stage but merely establishing the minimum accepted levels of respect will enduringly remain the greatest of her, and their, accomplishments.

And so when the FAI refer rather blithely in their tribute to Byrne that she was one of "Irish football's greatest servants", it seems to us such a pity that Irish football did not serve her rather better than it did.

Irish Independent

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