Tom English: 'Kurtis needs his father meddling like he needs a hole in the head'
HE CAME on the phone full of thunder and lightning, his speech riddled with f-words and scatter-gun threats that could have taken out a whole army not to mind a lone, slightly bewildered reporter, who'd had the nerve to criticise him. Paul Byrne was that mad man. Long time ago now, sure, but still fresh in the memory.
"Where's your office?" he barked.
"Why do you want to know?" I asked.
"The stuff you wrote was f****** out of order. I'm coming round to beat the head off you!"
Duly told where to find me, Byrne signed off with some choice language and a promise that he was on his way across Glasgow in a taxi to sort me out.
Rather disappointingly, he never arrived.
Paul Byrne slipped away into the football doldrums after that. His time at Celtic was coming to an end – me pointing this out was the original source of his ire – and he disappeared off the radar halfway through that year of 1995. I hadn't thought about him in 14 years. Until last week. Reading about his son's goalscoring heroics at Hibs was a surprise – Byrne Snr is still in his thirties after all – but dad's public comments in the aftermath didn't exactly come as a shock to those of us who remember him from his year at Celtic.
Paul wants the best for his boy and that's understandable. He wants him playing for the first team at Hibs and wants it now. He says Mixu Paatelainen is the only football man in Scotland who reckons young Kurtis isn't ready for the big league. With that in mind he's already had a word in Neil Lennon's ear at Celtic. "It's a bit frustrating," says Paul. "Maybe I've started something there in terms of interest from Celtic."
This is all quite sad. It's terribly unfair on Kurtis, who needs his father meddling in his football life like he needs a hole in the head. You don't need to be a psychologist to figure out what is going on here. Paul failed in his career partly because he was consumed by anger and bitterness towards those he saw as putting him down. He railed incessantly at those people back in Dublin who thought he would never amount to anything. He interpreted a few excellent games in the Celtic first team as proof that he had made it in the game, that he was a success. His sense of focus was pitifully blurred. And by the sounds of it, it hasn't sharpened much in the intervening years.
From this distance it looks like Paul is trying to live his football life all over again through his son, maybe reach peaks he never managed himself. It's hardly a new phenomenon. Pushy parents are the scourge of sport, the ruination of prodigies.
I remember spending some time with Paul when he was with Celtic, before the fallout. To say he was an angry young man in a hurry would be putting it mildly. The story of his life was fascinating; a father at 16, a gambler, a drinker, shunted out of Oxford by the then manager Brian Horton because his personal life was a disaster. Byrne spoke openly about his punting, how he lost all of his money on the horses and even sold his golf clubs to raise funds for another losing bet.
He told of the ridicule he suffered when he went home to Dublin, the "told you so" taunts. "Everybody thought I was a waster," he said, "but now look at me." He was in the first team at Celtic. "King of the castle." He had a high opinion of himself. "The thought of what I might achieve in this game frightens me," he boasted. "Packie Bonner says that if I keep playing the way I am I'll be a millionaire by the time I'm 23."
Byrne took pot-shots at anybody and everybody. He took the mickey out of managers who turned him down. "You know that Jimmy Nicholl at Raith Rovers," he trumpeted. "He had a chance to buy me for 50,000 before I came to Celtic, but I'd cost him 1.5m now. I hear he's pulling his f****** hair out over that." He took the mickey out of seasoned pros. "See Ray Houghton? His legs are going." He reckoned he was next in line for Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland midfield. He had a point. Charlton did go to Glasgow to see him play but never capped him. He had talent but what he didn't have was a smart head on his shoulders.
Apparently, he still doesn't.
Last week he said Kurtis wouldn't make the same mistakes he made, as if he's stopped making them. He hasn't. He's putting pressure on his son the way he put pressure on himself in the past, he is talking up his boy in the same way he lauded his own ability in 1994. No good came of that in his day so what he hopes to achieve by doing it all over again is hard to see.
Byrne Snr ran out of allies in the game because of his loose tongue almost as much as his expanding waist. Lou Macari got fed up with the way he piled on the pounds, never fully knowing what he got up to away from the training ground. He'd shed the weight Monday to Friday and would be trim come Saturday, but at the beginning of the week he'd have the fat back on. "It's a mystery how he does it," said the Celtic manager at the time.
What a tricky position Kurtis is in now. His father's advice is hopelessly misguided and potentially destructive but that's his dad we're talking about, presumably a man he looks up to, who he consults. "Kurtis knows all about the mistakes I made in my career with drinking and gambling. He saw the damage it did and he won't make the same mistakes."
Drinking and gambling were only a part of Paul's downfall. Hubris was a key factor, too. We saw that again during the week. Despite his father's protests, Kurtis hasn't made it just because of a few goals for the youths any more than Paul made it when scoring a few against Rangers.
He's done nothing yet. And his father should say nothing.
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