Paul Byrne: ‘If I wasn’t such a strong character I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today’

On the fifth episode of LOI Arena, Paul Byrne discussed scoring against Rangers at Ibrox, the highs and lows of his football career and the mental struggle players face in retirement.

LOI Arena is the new podcast about the League of Ireland and Irish football from Con Murphy, Conan Byrne and Pundit Arena.

Paul Byrne.

This week’s guest was former Celtic midfielder Paul Byrne. Byrne famously scored a brace against Rangers at the Ibrox in 1995 before returning to the League of Ireland where he played a starring role for Bohemians and St Patrick’s Athletic.

That Old Firm performance remains as one of Byrne’s most cherished memories, but he has also experienced the darker side of football. Feelings of rejection, failure and neglect were all discussed in this week’s episode of LOI Arena as the 48-year-old spoke with raw honesty and emotion to Con Murphy and Conan Byrne about his roller-coaster career.

Byrne has struggled with gambling addiction and depression for much of his life and suggested he ‘wouldn’t be sitting here today’ only for his strength of character.

Paul Byrne on his gambling addiction.

When St Patrick’s Athletic star Chris Forrester went over to Peterborough United in 2015, he was an instant success on the pitch. Following a stunning debut season at Weston Homes Stadium the midfielder was rewarded with a three-year contract and made captain of the club.

Forrester was compared to Michael Carrick by his manager and even drew praise from Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer in his early days at the Posh. What was not known at the time was that every Saturday afternoon was an essential form of escapism for Forrester. The rest of his week consisted of homesickness, isolation, depression and too much anxiety to even phone an internet provider. Instead, he lived without internet for three years and used Starbucks’ wifi after training to send essential messages.

Byrne also struggled with his mental health in the UK but made a different kind of trip each day after training. The father of Athlone Town captain Kurtis Byrne placed bets in bookmakers for hours on end during what a ‘tough’ point in his life.

“As anybody knows, it was a tough time of my life and I did things that I regret and that was one of them – standing in a bookies maybe from one o’clock to six o’clock in the evening.

“If you lost, you were chasing. Every gambler knows that, knows what I would be talking about there. I can blame other people but it was myself that put myself in that situation. You know, ‘did you get enough support when that happened?’.

 

“It happened to Leigh Griffiths, John Hartson – all these players had the help around, had this kind of help.

“And this is what I’m fighting against over here a little bit. I just think a lot of people think footballers are great characters, have loads of money. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

“A lot of footballers will go through a lot of problems. Depression, broken marriages very early in their lives and then they feel alone after being on such a high, from having so much to having nothing and being on a low.

“Some days you don’t know what way to turn and to be honest with you, if I wasn’t such a strong character, as everybody knows…I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

Paul Byrne on feeling unwanted and the importance of family.

“It goes back to when you’re 13 and you feel sort of unwanted. When your career finishes you get that feeling all over again and it was hard.

“That’s the sort of thought that goes through your head and it was tough.”

“At the time my marriage broke up as well. There was a lot of stuff that went on in my life [but] I have good people around me.

“I have a great family around me now and I’m living with a lovely girl, Mary Spencer, who has been a rock; [my son] Kurtis, my grandson [too]. Things are good but as you know, you have to put things to the back of your mind.

“People don’t know what you go through on a day to day basis but it is what it is and you have to get on with it.”

Paul Byrne on wanting more help for footballers when they return to Ireland.

Byrne is thankful for the people close to him who have supported him through his lows but is nevertheless determined to see retired Irish footballers get better help in the future.

The former Celtic midfielder does not want to see other young men go through the same challenges and would urge someone from the sporting bodies to pick up the phone and communicate with players.

“I just don’t think there’s enough done in this country for players that are finishing. People think ‘aw Paul Byrne, strong character, ah, what about it?’

“It would be nice for someone to pick up the phone and say, ‘Well Byrnsy, how are ya doing today? Well you’re only home from England. How’s things, are you living at home?’

“And not just me, because this happens on a regular basis. The vultures jump on the bandwagon to get a few quid to get the kid across, kick him across and once he’s across they make a few quid.

“But once he comes home, what has he got?

Paul Byrne on signing for Celtic and scoring against Rangers.

Byrne also reflected on some of the high points of his career, including signing for Celtic and scoring for the Glasgow side against their bitter rivals Rangers.

Liam Brady, one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers, signed the Dubliner when he was Celtic manager in 1993 and housed Byrne for his first six months in Glasgow. Brady helped the midfielder settle in Scotland and get fit.

“Chippy (Brady) signed me and I think went from 17 stone down to 13 stone 10,” Byrne said.

“I worked really hard on the training ground. I was the first on the pitch and last off, I did work in the gym too. I really wanted it. I knew this chance was going to set me up for life. And it did, look at what came out of it. If I never scored those two goals against Rangers – I played against them eight times – I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today because no one would want to know.

“I would’ve just been another one who fell by the wayside. But because I did a little bit in my career for Celtic, people are still interested.”

Byrne then talked Con and Conan through his famous goal against Rangers at Ibrox. The Dubliner scored from the edge of the box with the outside of his boot, one of two goals he scored against Celtic’s rivals.

“Frank Conor, the reserve team coach at Celtic, would always say to me, ‘Get to the back post’,” Byrne said.

“It stuck in my mind in that game. And when I saw John Collins turning inside and hitting the cross-field pass, there was only one thing in my mind. I always knew he had a magic left-foot, he could do anything with it…

“My Da used to always say, ‘If you can hit it first-time, hit it first time because the ‘keeper won’t be expecting it. And, obviously, I hit it with the outside of my boot, I caught it sweet, and it went into the far corner.

“By the time it left my foot I knew it was going in. Before the ball even hit the net I had my hand in the air. That was a special time. A special moment.”

LOI Arena.

LOI Arena is the new home for great League of Ireland discussion. Each week Con and Conan will take to the mic to analyse the highs and lows from the Greatest League in the World. The lads are joined by great guests each week who share a passion for all things LOI and Irish Football.

Episode 5 of LOI Arena is available to listen to here.

The podcast will form part of a new membership offering from Pundit Arena that focuses on Irish soccer fans for just €3.99 per month, less than a euro per week.

Fans can sign up at https://punditarena.com/loiarena.

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