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A Christmas break at home in Louth got Byrne back on Aussie Rules track after torn cruciate

22-year-old Ciaran Byrne is close to recovery after last July’s setback.

Ciaran Byrne moved to Carlton in 2013.
Ciaran Byrne moved to Carlton in 2013.
Image: Carlton FC

WHAT WAS THE lowest moment?

Ciaran Byrne pinpoints the stage before Christmas.

Five months after the Louth native had snapped his cruciate at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, seen his 2017 AFL season come to a shuddering halt and been left wondering why injury was again wrecking his hopes of forging a sporting career on the other side of the world.

In early December his Carlton team-mates were getting set to head to the Gold Coast for a pre-season training camp. They were energetic and set to put in the grind ahead of a new Aussie Rules season.

22-year-old Byrne was trying to coax his knee back to health and not feeling like he was making any progress.

And then a proposal was put to him that involved a change of scenery.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. It had got to that stage where I was getting a bit homesick. The boys were heading to the Gold Coast but the club actually gave me that off and let me go home.

“Going home, getting to see the family and enjoy that build-up to Christmas was really nice.”

He didn’t neglect his rehab either, making the journey to Santry to work with Enda King, an ACL recovery specialist from Cavan.

“I was still flat out training. It wasn’t that I was just enjoying myself, I was up with him Monday, Wednesday, Friday every week.

“I came back in pretty good nick so the club was pretty happy with me. Going home was the best thing I did and it’s thanks to the club I got to do that.”

IMG_8996 Carlton's Ciaran Byrne

Home for Byrne is in Louth Village, almost seven miles from Dundalk and nestled close to the county borders with Monaghan and Meath.

The time around Christmas eased the mental struggles with a serious injury. He’s from a family of four children, two sisters and his older brother Declan.

His younger sister Eimear is responsible for his nickname Casey, struggling to pronounce Ciaran when she was younger and handing her brother a name that has stuck ever since.

Declan provided the sporting inspiration and Ciaran relished getting to see the Louth senior footballer in action for Leinster in the interprovincial championship last December.

They shared a Louth senior dressing-room for a single season, Ciaran emerging in 2013 to make an instant jump from the minor ranks before jetting off to a new life in Australia that autumn.

Declan Byrne and Sean Gannon Declan Byrne (left) in action for Louth against Carlow last season Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He was always a role model of mine.  We didn’t play too many games together for Louth that year but we did for the club, which was nice.

“It was amazing and hopefully some day down the line, I’ll get to play with him again, fingers crossed.

“He trains hard as well, any time I get home in off season, I train with him.

“He’s playing pretty good football with Louth. They’re going to Division 2 now which is pretty exciting.

“I definitely do keep an eye out for the Louth boys but it can be pretty hard to watch with the time difference. The Division 3 league final was on at three o’clock in the morning last month and I’d to be up at six. I gave that one a miss but saw the highlights.”

Colin Kelly dejected after the game Louth manager Colin Kelly with players after the league final loss to Tipperary. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Returning to Melbourne in the New Year, Byrne attacked the season with renewed vigour. His eagerness to return stems from a steadfast belief that he can establish himself further in Aussie Rules.

His career path backs that up. After joining Carlton at the tail end of 2013, he bounced on to make his AFL debut in April 2015, introduced in the third quarter of a game against Essendon with his parents having trekked over from Ireland to witness that milestone.

But then he hit a massive roadblock, suffering a hamstring injury ten days later that transpired to be serious enough to rule him out for the rest of 2015.

Byrne rebounded and made a persuasive case for inclusion in the 2016 campaign.

“Both times injuries happened, I felt I’d momentum and was getting comfortable in the game. I made my debut in 2015, then the hamstring was a setback.

“I played 11 games in a row last year, was starting to really cement a place on the team and was then got shot back again with the ACL last July.

“I was actually having one of my better games. I got the ball in the half-back line, I looked to kick to the other side of the field but there was no option so I turned back and kicked long down the line.

“I got pushed on it, landed on it and hyper-extended the knee. I knew straight away that I’d done something serious. I was in some serious pain and couldn’t get up.”

The physical exertion required to get himself right was not something he has shirked but getting his head straight was trickier.

“It’s definitely the mental thing that’s hardest. You’re not involved in the group.

“When you’re on your own, it’s just you and the physio doing the programme, and it can be very isolating. That’s what you’ve to do though. There’s no shortcuts.

ciaranbyrne-2-390x285 Ciaran Byrne stretchered off at the MCG last summer

“I’ve found it hard actually going to games this year because obviously I’d rather prefer being out there. Round 1 especially was tough.

“We opened the season, it was on a Thursday night, going to that game, even walking into the stadium, feeling the atmosphere, you don’t feel involved as you do when you’re playing.

“I just find watching the games is too hard so I’d rather watch it on TV.”

He’s closing in on a comeback but will be rejoining a Carlton squad stripped this year of a major influence in Byrne’s development.

These days Zach Tuohy is plying his trade with Geelong, he did plenty for Byrne before then. The duo and Cork’s Ciaran Sheehan never got to realise their ambition of playing together on the AFL stage but still forged a strong link.

“I can remember when I came out first at 16 for a 10-day trial and I stayed with Zach. He really made me settle into the lifestyle out here, introduced me to people and showed me around the city.

“Having him and Ciaran made that transition a lot easier. If you get a small bit homesick, you’d talk about Gaelic a lot and all those things that Irish lads would have in common.

“We always said it from day one, that we wanted to play together the three of us. We were lucky enough to play together in one game over against the West Coast Eagles in a NAB Cup pre-season game.

Ciaran Sheehan, Zach Tuohy and Ciaran Byrne Ciaran Sheehan, Zach Tuohy and Ciaran Byrne at an Ireland International Rules game in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“That was amazing. I remember lining up in the half-back line and looking across my left and seeing Ciaran, and looking across my right and seeing Zach.

“We got to fulfil it in a pre-season game but unfortunately not in a home AFL game which was disappointing.”

Despite all the time spent out of action, his passion for the game continues to burn brightly.

“It’s crazy in Melbourne, it’s only when you’re here that you actually realise how big footy is. It’s all people talk about. You definitely can’t escape it.

“I still can’t believe it’s my job really. I don’t call it work, I’d just call it going to training every day.

“It’s an absolute privilege to have the job I have. I’m at the stage now where I’m not far away from playing, really looking forward to that as it’s been a long process.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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