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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
John McVitty/INPHO
# Louth and clear
'Gaelic football is at the centre. I took that obsessive thing from Australian rules'
Former AFL star Ciarán Byrne lines out for a resurgent Louth against Kildare today.

FOR ALL THE world, it looked like he was living the life. Ciarán Byrne spent six years in the AFL with Carlton, chalking up over 20 games. He left on his own terms to return home, set up his own business and play football. Dolce vita.

Then he landed back. A game that had always felt easy was suddenly exacting. In his first match, he caught a mark and started walking backwards, as they do in Australian Rules. ‘What are you at?’ roared the sideline. His internal monologue roared louder.

His second match? A county final. He leapt for a ball and came thundering back to earth, his ankle taking the brunt and snapping. The comeback dream turned nightmare. After Louth won the Division 3 league final recently, Byrne had cause to revisit that stretch. It left a simple lesson. Enjoy what you can because you will endure plenty too. 

ciaran-byrne-celebrates Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

“Over the last couple of years, it has been tough for everyone around me. I was homesick so I was mad to get back home,” he admits.

“I came home to play football and got shut down with that ankle injury. I went through a pretty rough period then mentally. Even in Australia, it was the same with a few injuries.

“Look, there is no point saying life has been plain sailing. From the outside looking in, they say Ciarán Byrne spent six years in Australia and had the time of his life. It’s like everything else, you have your ups and downs. You do struggle some days. On other days you are buzzing.

“My first time playing with Louth in Croke Park, that was special. That is where I want to be. I love football. Without it, I don’t know what I would do.

“It makes it worthwhile. I do work so hard. I wake up and the first thing I think about is how is my body feeling. What do I need to eat today? What do I need to do before my next training session?

“Gaelic football is at the centre. I’d say my woman is fit to kill me at this stage. I took that obsessive thing from Australia I suppose.” 

Always a one-track mind. That was just one of many indicators that the St Mochta clubman was destined for the summit. He made his debut for Louth as an 18-year-old in Newbridge when he hit Kildare for five points in a qualifier. AFL scouts had already decided to recommend signing him after he scored nine of his side’s 10 points in a Leinster minor football semi-final. In fact, they claim to have made the call based on his warm-up alone that day. 

Ciaran

But that professional game took its toll. Days after his Carlton debut, he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury. The following season it was the ACL. By the time he came home he wasn’t picking up from where he left off: he was starting from a new place.

That league final was his first full game this season due to a groin issue. Byrne kicked 0-4 from play. He wanted much more. 

“I am very self-critical. I still wasn’t happy with some of the things I did there. That was the first full game I played in a few months. I was adjusting, trying to get my body right which is always a hard thing.

“See the thing about Australia, I spent six years there. What that did to my body… it just had a massive effect. I had trouble with niggles and certain injuries, but the two main injuries had a massive effect on me.

“The ACL in 2015 and the dislocated ankle in 2018 when I came home. It had a huge effect on my body. I know myself that if I can get my body right, I can be one of the best footballers around. If I can do it, fuck it. There is no reason I can’t have more big days.”

The number of times he has rewatched that game is in double digits. That introspection always lingered under the surface but a career in professional sport hardwired it into his being. That was a sport with prolonged review sessions. Always honing in on the finest details. A half-step too far left. A ball drop an inch too high. Squeeze every ounce. 

“Australia really exacerbated it. I was always competitive. I want to be the best and Australia just hit that further. I suppose it makes you obsessive. What you eat, how you train. Post-game reviews all the time.” 

Does it always help? The answer is an emphatic no. But that mindset can’t be pushed or pulled. It is part of his essence, for better or worse.

“If you are enjoying it that is when you are at your best. But you can’t force that.

“I remember my first AFL game, I hadn’t a clue and it was probably one of the best games I played. It was off the cuff, out to get the ball. I want to get on this here. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I went out to enjoy myself. There is a lot to be said for that, but I suppose it is easy to say it.”

In recent weeks he has started to flourish and demonstrate the full array of his skillet. Kicking scores with his left and right, powering away from defenders thanks to raw pace, doing it all with a distinct coolness.

In Croke Park, he was chipping the ball up off the ground and scoring on the spin. Against Carlow last week, a long kick-out broke kindly and Byrne played on soccer-style, slotting into the bottom corner for their second of five goals. The burnished look of confidence is back.  

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Professional sport did instil certain fundamentals that stand to him now. 

“Over there, ball-handling is so important. Peripheral vision. It is a 360 game so you can get tackled from anywhere. Especially behind. That awareness getting the all quick and getting it off, left or right hand, has to be really sharp. Coming here you find it easier.

“Another thing is the timing of your jump. Gaelic football isn’t really a jump sport bar maybe the odd one in midfield. You really learn how to jump and time it properly. I look at the marks by (Conor) Glassy, Stefan (Okunbor). I took one against Offaly. Learning how to properly execute it holds you in good stead.” 

eoin-carroll-and-jordan-hayes-contest-the-throw-in-with-bevan-duffy-and-ciaran-byrne Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO / INPHO

Byrne runs a Pilates studio in Dundalk. It is a practice that stood to him during his recovery in Australia. So much so that he now believes every footballer should use some form of Pilates. His specialised version incorporates a reformer machine. It is a low-impact exercise where he can get into certain compromised positions without pain. 

“Reformer Pilates hasn’t hit in Ireland massively. it was a niche. I fell in love with it in Australia and it was a massive part of what I did. I studied it out there and when I came home. It marries well with being an inter-county football. I am 27 now and you have a small window. I want to play for as long as I can.”

The buoyant mood is spreading around the county. It encases them. A force field of Mickey Harte’s fervour and Sam Mulroy’s artistry and a vocal cohort of eager supporters. O’Connor Park and Kildare await.  

“There is a positive feeling in the county and it wasn’t before really. Players didn’t want to play for Louth. Now you go to games and kids are screaming the lads’ names. 

“We are not the only a few players. We have 40 in our squad, I am not saying this cliché. I think of someone like Ciaran Downes, he was just unbelievable in the league. Anyone who has watched him will tell you.

“We are starting to get a good mix. We are quite young and for as long as I have been involved in Louth, the comradery is just second to none. There is a good buzz right now. Long may that continue.” 

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