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Ciaran Byrne: 'The pain was crazy. I looked at my foot and it was facing the opposite way.'

After a year where he ended his AFL career and suffered a serious injury, Louth’s Ciaran Byrne is looking forward to 2019.

THE YEAR STARTED off in Australia as a professional sportsman and closes with him back in Ireland ready to immerse himself in the amateur game he grew up with.

IMG_3460 Ciaran Byrne moved to Carlton in 2013. Source: Carlton FC

There was the soaring high of county final glory with his club and the shattering low of a snapped ankle that will put him on the comeback trail in the early days of the New Year.

Ciaran Byrne packed plenty into a whirlwind journey through 2018 as his life shifted on and off the pitch.

Mid-October brought a Sunday of contrasts.

All sporting news is local. In the smallest county in Ireland, this year’s intermediate final showdown was big news in Louth Village, situated seven miles from Dundalk and tucked into a corner near the borders of Monaghan and Meath.

You had to trace a path back to 1981 for St Mochta’s previous appearance in an intermediate decider. The chance to climb up to the senior ranks was one they were desperate to seize.

By September Byrne was home from Australia, where he had moved to in 2013 when recruited by AFL side Carlton.

He came on as a second-half substitute in a county semi-final as St Mochta’s surmounted the challenge of Mattock Rangers and was sprung from the bench again on county final day.

“I was lucky not to get a few black cards in the semi-final, the old tackling wasn’t great. Then had a couple of weeks training, started to feel I was coming back into the swing of things. Got on for about ten minutes in the final.

“I came on around full-forward and then I came out for a kickout to win one because we’d lost a few in a row. I went up to catch the ball, I landed on my ankle and I knew.

“The pain was crazy. I looked at my foot and it was facing the opposite way. They tried to put it back in straight away but I was rushed off to hospital. Knowing me I always do a fair job on it.

“I asked if could I stay to watch the game, there was only 10 or 15 minutes left, but I’d to be rushed straight to hospital. I remember I was drugged up and one of the boys I knew at the hospital roared out that we were after winning by two points. So as they were pulling my ankle back in, I was screaming celebrating.”

It was an odd experience. He missed the post-match celebrations and getting to see his brother Declan swing the game the way of St Mochta’s with a series of points.

He went under the knife on the Monday, got to grasp the silverware on the Tuesday after his operation when a bunch of team-mates landed into the hospital in Drogheda and was left home on the Wednesday.

“The buzz around the place was unbelievable before the final. I was never going to miss it. But getting absolutely busted, you’d never dream of that happening. I was glad the boys pushed on and got the win in the end. It was kind of bittersweet.”

There was enough happening off the pitch to to contend with as well. The week before the county final he informed Carlton of his decision to cut ties with AFL football and leave Melbourne. The day after St Mochta’s club success, the news was made official.

It was no knee-jerk decision, instead a choice that hung over him throughout 2018.

“The whole year there were a lot of the conversations with coaches over there and my family back home. It wasn’t just a decision I made on the spot.

“I eventually came down on the fact that I wanted to be back in Ireland playing Gaelic and being with my family and friends. I enjoyed my years there. I was unlucky getting a lot of injures.

“I still got to play senior games of AFL football so I felt like I achieved a lot over there. They completely understood it. At the end of the day they can’t force you to stay in Australia. Any Irish person that moves out there, you do sign a contract but it’s in your contract that if you do want to come back to Ireland, you can. Obviously they wanted me to stay but it comes down to the individual at the end of the day.”

Paddy McBrearty and Ciaran Byrne celebrate Ciaran Byrne celebrating Ireland's 2013 International Rules victory over Australia with Paddy McBrearty. Source: INPHO/James Crombie

After making the move five years ago and grappling with a new and unfamiliar game, Byrne became accustomed to Australian Rules. He got to sample 22 outings at the elite level for Carlton.

But a wave of injuries conjures up inevitable consideration of how things could have panned out differently, particularly the torn cruciate he suffered during the 2016 campaign.

“It is a case of a what if moment. After being there for five years and kind of cementing a place in the team, then I did the ACL when I’d played 12 games. I was playing some good football.

“But that’s life, it is what it is. You put your head down and look forward to the challenges ahead.”

He feels he absorbed plenty of knowledge from his time in Australia.

“I’ve learned a lot, whether it be preparation with my body, learning how to cope with injuries. Just simple professional things that I can hopefully transfer to Gaelic.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person too. You definitely have to grow up considering you’re moving 24 hours away and you’re only 17 years of age. You grow up quite quickly and I learned heaps as a person.”

The plan now is to make his mark with club and county. In 2013 Byrne burst onto the scene as an exciting youngster for Louth before he made the sporting switch. He’s excited about the setup that new manager Wayne Kierans has assembled.

“When I left it was the remnants of that (2010) Leinster final team, the likes of Paddy Keenan and Shane Lennon. It was an older sort of group whereas now there’s a small amount of those lads left like my brother and Derek Maguire.

“A lot of the boys that are in now I wouldn’t have known. It’s a pretty young group but a lot of talent there. I’m looking forward to transitioning back into county football.”

The chance to line out with his brother Declan again was another lure.

Declan Byrne Declan Byrne in action for Louth against Carlow earlier this year. Source: Lorraine OÕSullivan/INPHO

“Deccie is getting old now, he’s 29,” laughs Byrne.

“We might have only played one game with Louth together. To get back and play with him at county level is massive. I can’t wait to do that.

“And for the club as well, coming up as a kid I spent my whole life in that football field. I was sickened to miss out on them in Leinster this year. I love my little club so it’s great to be back next year in a senior setup.”

He doesn’t view his Australian experience with regrets and would encourage any Irish youngster in a similar scenario to embark on such a sporting adventure if afforded the opportunity.

“No regrets whatsoever. It was weird being home in October or November, I’m usually over there sweltering in the heat doing pre-season. Obviously I miss a lot of the lads over there and at times you do miss it because it’s not your job any more.

“There’s benefits to being back in Ireland, playing Gaelic and being around my family and friends. For the first time in six years I got the build up to Christmas which is a great time of year.

“I think there’s seven or eight lads after signing for AFL clubs which is a massive thing. It’s not for everyone, there’s going to be a homesick side of things and it’s a sport you never played before. It has its difficulties but the lifestyle of being a professional footballer, waking up every day to go play with 40 lads, it’s a great experience.

“Fingers crossed for them lads that they’re injury free and adapt to the game and make a career out of it.”

He’s working locally as a sales rep for Defy Sports Apparel in Dundalk and since getting the cast off in late November, is focused on repairing his ankle.

When he landed back first, the former Down and Collingwood player Marty Clarke was in contact with some helpful tips on adjusting to his changing circumstances.

“It’s different coming back here and getting into a job that’s 9-5 every day and not getting my days off on a Wednesday like I was used to in Australia and going to the beach.

“I actually don’t mind the cold weather. Hopefully I’ll get some snow now over Christmas that I haven’t seen in six years.

“It’s all a challenge I’m looking forward to and I can’t wait to get started. I’m well used to rehabbing. It’s the same leg I did my ACL.

“I’ll put in a lot of hard yards to get myself back ready. We’ll see how the rehab goes but no reason I can’t get back playing the end of January, start of February.”

With one life and sporting chapter over, now he’s looking forward to exploring another next year.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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