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'One of the young lads passed to Edgar Davids and he goes ‘f*** sake, I played for Barcelona. Play it in harder!'

Dubliner Mark Byrne has experienced highs and lows during a 10-year spell in English football, but the Gillingham midfielder wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Watford v Gillingham - EFL Cup - Second Round - Vicarage Road Byrne celebrates his goal against Watford in Gillingham's EFL Cup win earlier this season. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

THE FINAL WHISTLE went, but Gillingham’s players still had a nervy wait to discover their fate.

Needing to match Port Vale’s result at Fleetwood Town in order to secure their League One status for another year, the Gills had played out a tense, scoreless draw away to Northampton Town.

Bunched together on the Sixfields Stadium pitch with thoughts of what relegation to England’s fourth tier could mean for their families and their careers, there were huge sighs of relief when word eventually came through that the other fixture had also ended 0-0.

“It came down to the last game of the season and it was nerve-racking to be fair because we got the draw but when our game finished they still had five minutes left,” recalls Irish midfielder Mark Byrne.

“So we were all standing on the pitch waiting for the score to come in. We should’ve secured our safety with a couple of weeks to go but we kept conceding late goals.

“You do feel the additional pressure in those games. It’s your livelihood and you’ve got to support your family. If you get relegated, your money goes down and players are fighting for contracts for next season. So it was vital that we stayed in League One.

“I’m just glad it’s over and done with and we can start fresh next season.”

Dubliner Byrne, who arrived at Gillingham last summer, has enjoyed ups and downs during a 10-year spell in English football but, at one stage, he thought the chance had passed him by.

Showing talent from a young age, the Tallaght native joined Dublin District Schoolboy League [DDSL] heavyweights Crumlin United and began to work his way up through the ranks.

The likes of Anthony Stokes, Adam Rooney, Eoin Doyle, Gary McCabe, Simon Madden and Robert Bayley were all team-mates of his at one stage, but while a number of those had been snapped up by English clubs in their early teens, Byrne was overlooked.

By U17s, the midfielder had impressed Crumlin’s first team manager Martin Loughran, who called him up to play in the Leinster Senior League.

A good few of the lads went over to England when they were 15 or so and I thought I was getting left behind, but I just kept my head down,” he says.

“I was lining out for Crumlin’s senior team and the U17s so I used to play Friday nights and then often Saturday mornings as well.”

He had represented Ireland at underage level and there were trials to Leicester City and Coventry City, but his luck was to change dramatically after a trip to play Nottingham Forest.

They liked what they saw and invited him back for a three-week period. An offer was made and Byrne agreed to join just after his 18th birthday.

The fact that there were a few Irish players at the club, including former Crumlin team-mate Alan Power, helped to seal the deal.

Keith Andrews and Mark Byrne Byrne in action for Nottingham Forest against Ireland's Keith Andrews in a 2008 friendly. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Life at Forest began promisingly and he made his first team debut less than a year after signing.

“I was doing well under Colin Calderwood, made my debut and I was on the bench a few times in the season they got promoted from League One,” he explains.

“The following season, I played one or two cup games but then he got sacked. Billy Davies came in and that was it. He was given a bit of money and brought his own players in.”

A series of loan spells followed. Byrne was farmed out to Burton Albion in 2009 and tasted success as they won the Conference as well as promotion to the Football League. Then there was a season at Rushden & Diamonds working under Justin Edinburgh, before a stint with Barnet.

Often deployed as a deep-lying midfielder throughout his career, Byrne was given a more advanced role behind the striker and enjoyed the switch as he got his name on the scoresheet more regularly.

That was cut short by a knee injury, but the Bees then signed him permanently after his release from Forest.

A year later, Dutch legend Edgar Davids arrived to take over as player-manager. The man nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’ had won league titles in the Eredivisie and Serie A as well as the Champions League while lining out for the likes of Ajax, Milan, Inter, Juventus and Barcelona, but now found himself in League Two.

“One-on-one, he was top drawer but in front of the group he’d be different,” Byrne says of Davids.

He had such a winning mentality with everything he did. No matter what he’d be doing, in the gym or in little drills on the training pitch, he would always challenge you.

“He’d do passing drills and every time he did it he would get it perfect. I remember one time, one of the young lads passed it into him and he turned around and goes ‘fuck sake man, I played for Barcelona. Play it in harder to me!’

“He was a bit of a nightmare to the young lads. He’d always be on their case, which I didn’t really like.

“But you could see why he won as many things as he did over his career. He was 40 or 41 at the time and still playing.”

Soccer - npower Football League Two - Chesterfield v Barnet - Proact Stadium Sharing a hug with Davids during their Barnet days. Source: pa wire

Barnet were relegated to the Conference in 2013 and Davids’ reign began to turn sour. He chose to wear the number one jersey, didn’t travel to some away matches and claimed he was being targeted by referees after picking up three red cards in six matches.

A 2-1 defeat to Chester City in January 2014 signalled his departure and Byrne’s three years at the club also came to an end that summer.

His former manager Justin Edinburgh, by now at Newport County, was interested in linking up again and the midfielder spent two seasons in south Wales — where he was made club captain.

Edinburgh had left for Gillingham midway through that period and Byrne followed last June on a two-year contract.

“It’s good to keep in touch with managers that you like because you never know what’s around the corner,” are his words of advice.

He settled in well and started 10 of the first 11 matches this term. That included a run in the EFL Cup, which saw them upset Premier League opponents Watford in the second round.

Trailing 1-0 with eight minutes on the clock, Byrne collected the ball and stepped inside onto his weaker left foot before unleashing a ferocious strike from 25 yards to equalise.

In extra-time, the Gills sealed a 2-1 win through Bradley Dack, who had missed a penalty earlier on.

Watch Byrne’s goal 1:34 in:

Source: GFCofficial/YouTube

“We had a big crowd that day and they had a full-strength squad out, so it was a great result for the club and the fans,” says Byrne.

“In the next round, we played Spurs at White Hart Lane but lost 5-0. There were 30-odd thousand at it but they were too good for us on the day and we couldn’t get anywhere near them.

“Their fitness is on a different level. [Mauricio] Pochettino has them well-drilled and one of the lads was talking to a player of theirs, who said they were doing stuff on us all week.

“You’d think they wouldn’t really do that for a League One side but they were well-prepared. It was a good experience.”

Results in the league worsened, however, and Edinburgh was sacked at the beginning of January with the club 17th in the table. Byrne picked up an injury and missed a large chunk of the campaign but regained his place in the team for the final two months.

Ex-Welling United and Forest Green Rovers boss Adrian Pennock, a former Gillingham defender, was brought in as head coach until the end of the season and just about managed to steer them clear of the drop.

Currently enjoying a break back home in Dublin, Byrne is optimistic that the Gills can put a promotion challenge together in 2017/18 — although much will depend on who is appointed to the hot seat.

Pennock has publicly-expressed his interest in taking the job permanently, while ex-Swansea and Wolves manager Kenny Jackett is also rumoured to be among the candidates.

Regardless of who’s in charge when pre-season starts, Byrne feels blessed to be making a living as a professional footballer.

I still love it — going training and playing matches,” he says. “I’ll miss the buzz whenever I finish because I know from being injured that it’s horrible.

“It’s one of the best jobs in the world and I always say to people who are homesick that they’re better off just giving it a chance.

“If they go home they’ll end up falling back into an old routine of being with the lads and going to the pub or whatever. They might regret that down the line so you just have to try and make the best of it.”

At 28, he hopes to have several more years playing in England but the intention is to one day return home.

“At the end of my career I’d like to do a season or two in the League of Ireland. My missus Sarah is Irish too so we’re going to eventually move back when I’m done here.”

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