Sport Soccer

Monday 11 December 2017

The Jason Byrne legacy

Robbie Keane's 'perfect cousin' tells David Kelly that he just wants to keep scoring like Ireland's prolific captain

Jason Byrne during his time at Shelbourne
Jason Byrne during his time at Shelbourne

IT ALL begins, like so many Irish soccer stories, on the streets where he lived. Picture the scene. Brookfield estate, Tallaght, 1986. Two young, gawky fellas contriving to score impossible goals from impossible angles. The target is between a greying, graffiti-strewn electricity box and a brown, oval-patterned jumper.

Both boys are Liverpool fans. Both boys want to score the most difficult goals in the easy manner of their hero, Ian Rush. Both boys are staving off that inevitable moment of being called home for their tea.

They are so close in mood and temperament that it is no surprise that blood ties bind them. They are cousins.

One of them will become a global superstar, a World Cup legend for his country, a Premier League icon, a glamorous celebrity.

The other will play for his country, too. He will also play professional football in England. Far fewer will know his name.

For many who do not know him, it will seem like a road less travelled. It is not. For it was always Jason Byrne's ambition to score goals – as it was Robbie Keane's. And while the currency of the goals and the worth they bring may differ, the fundamental aspect of the art does not.

"We both like to score goals, pure and simple," says Byrne, now a record-breaker in his own right.

Keane moved all over the world. Byrne's travels were rather more restricted. But, as they say, the goalposts never move.

A good striker may know where the ball is. A great one knows where it is going to be. By this measure alone, Byrne is a great striker. Allow us to introduce him.

JASON BYRNE always knew he could become a great goalscorer, but he wasn't always convinced that he could become a great footballer.

"I just played for the fun of it," he smiles. He did as a kid when Tallaght estates would pair off in those endless matches on the green that would start in the afternoon, accumulate fathers after tea-time and end only because dusk had the temerity to intervene.

After that, you moved to the roads beneath the street lights.

Like cousin Robbie, Jason played for Fettercairn United U-9s as a seven-year-old. Like Robbie, Jason would move to Crumlin United as dad Noel nudged his offspring in a similar direction.

"For some reason, the fella there didn't like me," Byrne recalls now. "Every one of their players got sent over for a trial in England. Except me. I don't know why, or what he had against me. He had his favourites."

The more he was dropped, the more he would score, when eventually brought on. He did this all year. And then dad Noel brought him back to Fettercairn. By this time, Robbie was turning down Liverpool for Wolves.

"At this stage, I was only playing football because all my mates were. I didn't see it as a career. I just loved scoring goals. That was it."

On a Sunday morning like many others for the then gangly, spindly teenager, Byrne was playing for St Colmcille's near Walkinstown. He scored. Which was normal. Yet he didn't think he had played well. Which was also normal.

Pat Devlin, Bray Wanderers manager – Damien Duff's long-time agent – was given a rave review by scout Martin Nugent, but Devo wanted to know himself how the skinny fella had got on.

"Did you play well?" "Nah!" "Did you score?" "Yeah" "How many?" "A hat-trick." "That'll do for me."

And so Byrne signed for Bray in 1998. He was 20. He scored on his debut, a League Cup game against Waterford. "I doubled me wages, 50 quid," he beams. He won the first Player of the Month award of the season. He was called into the Ireland U-21 squad.

"The League of Ireland was my Premiership," he recalls. "I was really excited. It was a massive step-up. I just grabbed the moment."

And then he broke his leg. "Sligo. November. The Cup. Awful pitch. Awful weather. I try to cross the ball, Wes Charles comes to move across me, I try to move my foot, but it doesn't budge."

Tranmere – under another Liverpool hero, John Aldridge – had been sniffing. But nobody wanted a crock. Six months later, he returned for a three-game FAI Cup final marathon against Finn Harps. He scored twice in the final game to secure the trophy.

Bray were relegated; it was the only time he briefly fell out of love with the game. "It wasn't for me," he says of sport's equivalent of hellish purgatory, League of Ireland First Division football.

He and Bray re-emerged. Byrne kept on scoring; league goal number 50 arriving in 2002. A year later he was gone in a €75,000 deal to Shelbourne as the domestic league pursued its own crazy Celtic Tiger dreams.

Five years after earning 50 punts a week and working in a Champions Store warehouse, he was earning four figures as a full-time pro.

He starred in a rheumy-eyed Champions League run that left the Dublin side a half-hour from the group stages; he should have scored in the Riazor against Deportivo La Coruna, and at Lansdowne Road when the League, temporarily, discarded its cult status and basked in the warm glow of the big time.

At Shelbourne – we did mention he scored on his debut, right? – he would finish top scorer for four successive seasons with league goal 100 arriving in 2007 – and Swedish side Djurgardens reportedly bid €400,000 for his services.

A higher calling was inevitable.

THE two boys who had traded goals in Tallaght all those years ago were reunited in Lansdowne Road in May 2006 – as Ireland internationals.

Against Chile, Byrne came on to win his second cap under Steve Staunton (after being initially capped briefly by Brian Kerr two years earlier). He played well; indeed, he set up both Keane and Duff up for chances that they both unexpectedly fluffed.

"It felt like I belonged, you know," he reflects. "I had played full-time and that proved to me that I had what it took to compete at the highest level. I knew I had the qualities in me to score goals wherever I went.

"And then to play for Ireland was just a massive reflection of that and a huge honour. We spent a whole week in Portugal, so it felt like much more than 20 or 25 minutes to me."

At last, Byrne's talents were recognised on a broader canvas. He was still 'Robbie Keane's cousin,' but that didn't rankle as much as before.

At 28, he prepared for another giant leap when Cardiff City came calling after Shelbourne imploded in an eerie premonition of Celtic Tiger Ireland's collapse. He went. Guess what? He scored on his debut.

However, he ended up in the reserves, where, naturally, he was their top scorer.

"Ah, it was tough," he says now. "I went after a Christmas off football, so I was catching up fitness-wise and never really got there. Then I got a few niggles."

When he came home, the eminent Irish doc, Alan Byrne, diagnosed fluid on his hamstrings immediately. By this stage, his English career was washed out.

And so, he returned to Bohemians. He kept on scoring – notching his 150th league goal in May 2009. And winning titles, two in succession before that club, like Shelbourne before it, succumbed with weary familiarity to crippling financial woes.

Byrne just kept on trucking. On to Dundalk and, eventually, back 'home'. By the seaside in Bray under the tutelage of Devlin, the man who kickstarted his top-class career all those years ago.

For 15 years now, he has been performing heroic feats – mostly, while swathed beneath a cloak of anonymity. more often than not, he has been greeted with blithe indifference.

ACCOLADE

When he became the second-highest goalscorer in Irish domestic soccer history last month, smashing the 200-goal barrier – the accolade was impugned by the indignity of the reception it was afforded.

There were 228 people in Belfield Park, the home of UCD, to witness the Bray Wanderers man stamp his personal mark on the history books.

During the time it took the 35-year-old to score a hat-trick – 18 minutes – more people would have passed by the ground on the 46A bus.

In that same month, cousin Robbie established his own personal record, breaking the Irish international appearances barrier and extending his astonishing goalscoring mark to rather more public acclaim.

Always being labelled Keane's 'cousin' – with the implication that this is the only way one can identify him – used to annoy Byrne.

"When I was younger, it would yeah," he agrees. "But look, we're cousins and that's it. I'm a bit more laid-back about it now. Nobody is getting hurt, so what's the point? For us, we're the same people as when we were kicking football on the street, trying to hit those electricity boxes. He's got his recognition in his way since then. And so have I.

"I'm my own person. We're two totally different people, who happen to do exactly the same thing."

It is almost impossible to achieve verification of Byrne's career statistics from available resources; a damning indictment of those who purportedly claim to cherish the domestic game.

When Byrne's feats eventually seep through to the Irish sporting consciousness, as they must due to the sheer weight of numbers, they will do so as if drifting like an uncertain rumour on the breeze.

But then, his business is an idiosyncratic pursuit – scoring goals in the world's most popular game in arguably one of its least popular environments. One in which two of his former employers, with whom he scored liberally and accumulated trophies with equal fervour, ultimately turned into financial basket cases.

Now, at 35, he has less and less tomorrows left in the game and years of yesterdays recede apace in his rearview mirror.

"The young lads keep me going," he says. "My pins aren't as strong as they used to be.

"But listen, I've 10 goals this year and if I got another 10, I'd be 20 or so from Brendan Bradley's record of 235. I want to keep going, just like Robbie."

And, just as Robbie unfurled his son Robert in Lansdowne Road earlier this month to mark his international appearance record, the next generation of Byrnes – seven-year-old Calum, mascot against Derry last week – is also on the prowl with a poacher's knack for goal.

"He's playing with Fettercairn as well," says the part-time coach. "He can't dribble that well, but he knows where the target is."

And so the wheel keeps turning.

And with it, the eternal truth of the beautiful game that admits Byrne to the esteemed upper echelons of his chosen sport.

For, be they multi-millionaires or hard-working Dublin suburban fathers, goalscoring remains an art of timing and grace and skill; these are the ties that bind poachers the world over.

And so, ladies and gentleman, we give you the story of Jason Byrne.

As Robbie Keane might well aver, "my perfect cousin." A man in full, defined by his own greatness and not deflected by that of anyone else.

Irish Independent

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