Old Firm bounty a taste of Paradise for Byrne

IF YOU should find yourself seeking shelter in a bar on the broad and narrow streets of Dublin this afternoon, and a stout young chap with a friendly manner waylays you with talk of having once scored twice for Celtic against Rangers within a matter of weeks, then, pray, hear him out.

Paul Byrne, who will watch today’s Old Firm clash in Slattery’s, his Dublin local, is not putting you on, even if the tale he may then recount, taking in as it will a number of familiar regrets, sounds as hackneyed as the fiddle tunes emanating from a busker in the street outside.

It would, in most circumstances, be prudent to dismiss these warblings as the blather of a Guinness-addled moon-hopper. However, Byrne can truly claim to have been a contender, and in this, his testimonial season, is surely allowed the time to reflect and, perhaps, dream.

"The thought of what I might achieve in this game bloody frightens me" a young Irishman once announced as he landed in Glasgow, flushed with excitement at the journey still before him. He once spoke of being worth 1million though in the end Celtic struggled to offload him for a tenth of that fee, Byrne joining Southend United under the charge of fellow Irishman Ronnie Whelan. This ended when they cancelled his contract, allowing Byrne to return home to Ireland.

"At the end of the day you leave Celtic and the only way is down," says Byrne now, in so cheery a manner that the drama he may hope to invest is lost. Now working for the Football Association of Ireland in Dublin and playing for Kilkenny City, his "umpteenth club", Byrne is happy to pick over the bones of his life in football, particularly when, with 12-year-old son Kurtis being targeted by Liverpool, another Byrne career might soon be starting. "I just tell him to follow what his mam says, not what his dad did," he says, offering a clue to who he blames for the unfulfilled potential you cannot avoid discussing.

He was spurred into leaving Celtic by a casual remark from Tommy Burns, who simply said he could not guarantee Byrne a first-team place. The impetuosity of youth dictated that Byrne simply upped sticks and left, refusing to entertain for a moment thoughts of staying somewhere where he was not wanted.

This wasn’t the first mistake in his young, turbulent life, but it is the one which returns to haunt him most often. "I got it into my head that Tommy did not want me, so I wanted to leave as soon as I could," he says. "At the time I was playing well, and I went down to Southend and scored a few goals there. Birmingham offered 750,000 for me, but the chairman Victor Watson, who is dead now, God rest his soul, rejected it, thinking he could get 1million at the end of the season.

"Birmingham were up near the top of the First Division then, and now they are in the Premiership. God knows what might have happened."

Still, he balances such regret with an acknowledgement that he was perhaps fortunate to play as many times as he did for Celtic, under three different managers.

"I played under Liam Brady, Lou Macari and Tommy Burns, so I must have been doing something right. At the end of the day, in my wildest dreams I never thought I would ever play for Celtic first team when I first left Bangor. So I think the job I did at Celtic was OK.

"I was one of the better players at the time. That’s why people cannot understand why I didn’t go onto better things."

The former Celtic player is now only 30, but already he is eight years away from when his career peaked. Capped by Ireland at every level, Byrne was perhaps one of the most talented players to arrive at Parkhead during an era when qualifying for Europe was an achievement, never mind remaining there after Christmas.

Supporters might recoil in horror at mention of his name, since it requires them to recall a time when the sign welcoming fans to Parkhead read like an inscription stuck above a grave. Byrne, though, supplied some life, at times a little too much. "The sort of character I was at the time, a lot of people did not like it at Celtic. Maybe because I was not one of the boys as such things went against me a bit. I was a bit wild, if you like ...."

He arrived at Parkhead in 1993 carrying considerable baggage, and not just the extra padding observed around his buttocks. He admits to drinking, smoking and gambling away his chance at Oxford, having also failed to make the grade at Arsenal. "I was doing all the things a teenager does," he shrugs. However, not every teenager is a father at 15, as Bryne was, and not every teenager has the brassneck to return home to Ireland with belief in tact having been rejected by Oxford.

A year later he was on the road again, a head full of dreams and with reason to believe that finally his skills were to find reward at a club managed by his hero Liam Brady, with whom, bizarrely, he stayed for the first six months of his stay.

Not many leave Celtic after three years with only a loser’s medal in the Coca-Cola Cup final (against Raith Rovers!) for company. Byrne, though, did at least score one of the penalties later rendered redundant by Paul McStay’s miss, but few will remember this.

They may, however, recall those goals against Rangers, the only two league goals he scored in the entire 1994/5 season. Even Henrik Larsson cannot boast so prodigious a goals per game ratio in Old Firm fixtures, and nor could the Swede hope to better the goal scored by Byrne in the 1-1 draw with Rangers on 4 January 1995, when he turned to sweetly volley home a John Collins cross.

It wasn’t enough to keep Byrne at Celtic, amid doubts about his weight and general fitness.

When he returned to Irish football, there were no shortage of workaday players seeking to take the rise out of him. "You try and do things you did at Parkhead, and they don’t come off," he says. "It frustrates you. All of a sudden, before you realise it, people think you’ve lost it."

It was hard to accept a homecoming so lacking in ticker-tape after having left Bangor Town aged 21, the recipient of both the league’s Young Player and Player of the Year trinkets. He was on stand-by for Jack Charlton’s World Cup squad in 1994. On Thursday night, aged only 30, he was being carried off the park in a game between Kilkenny and Waterford, spending the night in a local hospital.

However, even a damaged ear drum won’t keep Byrne away from Slattery’s today at midday, he promises.

And, he gently chides you as you prepare to leave, he has one more thought for the road, though you suspect the rambling might now have started. "It’s my testimonial on the 12 May, at Dalymount Park. Half the funds raised are going to Our Ladies’ Hospital for Sick Kids. You have to get yourself over here for the craic.

"Celebs are coming from Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Eastenders .... Jack Duckworth is managing one of the teams.

"It’s just something they want to give me after what I have given to the game over 16 years. I’m trying to get Alan McManus and John Higgins involved. Steve Collins the boxer is coming, and his brother Roddy. Maybe I’ll get some Celtic players along......"

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