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Dublin: 16 °C Friday 7 August, 2020

'When he was dying he said to me: ‘Jack is going to play for Ireland, he’s special’'

David Sneyd sits down with Ireland and Shamrock Rovers midfielder Jack Byrne, along with his family, ahead of the FAI Cup final.

Jack Byrne and his mother Jackie.
Jack Byrne and his mother Jackie.
Image: Instagram/Jack Byrne

THE SITTING ROOM is full of life and laughter on this Monday evening.

Just the way Jackie Byrne likes it.

It’s been that little bit louder around the house since her youngest child, Shamrock Rovers and Republic of Ireland midfielder Jack Byrne, returned home to rebuild his career – and life – last Christmas.

“I love having him here. He’s gas, the craic he brings to the house,” Jackie beams. “It’s great having a man back in the house again, it’s great. I love it.”

The poignancy of that line becomes clearer as she points to the photograph of her late husband John (Johnner as Jackie still calls him) on the wall above the couch she’s sitting on. Daughter Jodie grips her mother’s hand that little bit tighter.

Over the course of this riveting hour, conversation ricochets from the hilarious to the heart-wrenching. “It’s the three of us living here,” Jack explains, before Jackie interrupts. “The three of us and Grace, Jodie’s little girl. Well, Jodie’s single.”

“Ah Ma, cut that out!” Jodie fires back, bursting out laughing.

Jackie’s two eldest sons, Anthony and Stephen, may be absent for work reasons but in their place are two more she insists on claiming as her own – Jack’s long-time agent, Graham Barrett, and family friend Niall “Flynner” Flynn, both of whom are here to discuss the joy of the last 12 months; seeing Jack thrive for club and country while back in the box room he left behind at 14 when he joined Manchester City as the most sought after talent in the country.

Jack Byrne mam 2 signing first city deal Jack and Jackie after he signed his first deal at Manchester City. Source: Instagram/Jack Byrne

But the previous couple of hours on the streets of the capital gnaw away at Jackie, who volunteers her time outside the Central Bank to help feed some of the city’s homeless.

It’s just after eight o’clock when she arrives home to this warm, embracing corner of Dublin 3 in the shadow of Croke Park – you can see the GAA’s cathedral peering down from the front garden, which also has a Dublin flag planted proudly in the grass.

The numbers of children lining up for food are growing, she sighs, and with temperatures dropping dramatically winter is about to bite. Christmas is not far away but, for the most vulnerable in society, this is the most perilous time of year.

It is why, on 5 December, Jackie Byrne will march alongside thousands more to send a clear message to those in power that they must do more to help some of the 10,000 homeless people in Ireland.

She understands that basic need to survive; the struggle to keep a family afloat and remain bonded by love. Theirs was a different battle, one of loss, pain and grief following the death of John from cancer 12 years ago.

Yet her family know they are still some of the lucky ones.

Because they have each other.

Because they have Jackie.

They have this hilarious, compassionate, strong-willed woman to look up to, and lead the way. Tomorrow she will do so as Jack tries to inspire Rovers to victory over Dundalk in the FAI Cup final.

But this year has already been a victory for Jack Byrne.

Not just because he was named Rovers’ player of the year and is now a regular in Mick McCarthy’s Ireland squad.

Because he’s happy, all we ever wanted was for you to be happy,” Jackie says, turning to face her son on one of the kitchen chairs brought into the living room beside baby Grace’s pink doll house.

Jack may have fulfilled a prophecy laid out by her late husband when he made his senior Ireland debut in September – coming off the bench to inspire Ireland to victory over Bulgaria at Aviva Stadium – but without his mother, he would not be where he is today.

Twelve months ago, he was at his lowest ebb in professional football, toiling in Scotland with Kilmarnock having been forced out of English League One club Oldham Athletic because of money problems.

Jackie set things in motion for him to return when she realised her son – ‘my baby’ – was ‘broken’.

A year on their world has completely changed.

So, what’s it been like?

Welcome to the house of fun.

jack-byrne Byrne taking a corner during his Ireland debut at the Aviva Stadium in September. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The downstairs toilet, right beside the front door, has, in the words of Jackie, been turned into ‘Jack’s shrine’. Above the toilet is a framed collection of St Kevin’s Boys, Manchester City and Ireland jerseys from his youth days.

There are numerous framed pictures of him in action; for City, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, SC Cambuur, Oldham Athletic and, of course, Shamrock Rovers.

There are newspaper clippings, match pennants and medals. But no sign of any of the Ireland jerseys he’s been given by Mick McCarthy this year.

In March he was drafted in for the Euro 2020 qualifiers with Gibraltar and Georgia, while in September he made his debut against Bulgaria, coming off the bench to set up one goal for Kevin Long from a corner before playing a defence-splitting pass in the build up to another.

They are moments the whole family have shared. On the trip to Gibraltar, Jackie even made sure to bring John’s ashes along.

Jackie: Remember when you came in and told me [about the first call up]? I started roaring and crying. It was Paddy’s Day, wasn’t it? We were out in the pub. And he runs into the pub like this [waving arms dramatically].

‘Ma, ma’ – and I’m going ‘Did he crash the car? Did he crash the car? You can tell me anything. Just tell me’. He couldn’t say it. And then next of all he started roaring and crying. And I thought ‘Jesus’. He said: ‘I’m in the Ireland squad’. I said: ‘Ahhhhh!’ – and then it went all over the pub and the DJ, Paul Gavin, puts on ‘We’re all part of Jackie’s army’ [starts clapping] and the whole pub is jumping around the place, the Clonliffe House.

So then we came up, and I rang him [Niall] and said: ‘Oh Jesus, my nerves are gone Flynner’, and you [Jack] were going over to the hotel that night. And me and her [Jodie] were running home, half locked, and we came back and here he is: ‘Pack this, Ma, pack that’ and I was like ‘oh my nerves, my nerves!’

Jodie: She was running around the house ‘Ole, ole ole ole, he’s in the squad’.

Flynner: We spoke about whether we’d go over. We spent the journey talking about it, thinking ‘Jesus we’ll have to go won’t we’ and we went to Gibraltar.

Jackie: Yeah, we went to Gibraltar, I couldn’t believe it. I had [John’s] ashes and all. I was waving them at him [Jack]. I do bring him to every game, the little pouch, yeah. I have the ashes. I used to put them in his boots. We spread the ashes over Dollymount Bridge because the kids needed somewhere to go. He was here [in the house]. We got a bit in the crematorium, I had my Dad there and he’s there, I got a double. I bought my Ma one as well and she doesn’t want to go in it. And I said to her ‘sake, Ma, I’m trying to save a few bob here!’ – ‘I’m going down’, she says. I says: ‘well I’m going in the wall’. I bring him everywhere, everywhere. He’s been everywhere.

Flynner: She gets charged extra on the Ryanair flights!

Jackie: He goes everywhere. I remember sitting with my arms around him while I was waving at Jack. And Jack was running up and down the Gibraltar pitch. And there I am, ‘Oh Jesus, Johnner, look at him’, because John always said he will play for Ireland. Always. Didn’t your Da always say it to you?

Jack: He did, yeah.

Jackie: And I’d say: ‘Ah, I know love, I know he will’, but he was right, and when it happened and when he was picked, it was like: ‘Oh Jesus, Johnner, you were right’. You know that feeling. It was… Awww.

Flynner: I think when it came to the Aviva [the Bulgaria] when you get called to come on, there was a pause because the ball didn’t go out of play for a while. We were just sat to the left of where he was. That feeling, it was about a minute long, where we knew he was going on. It was just special. We all probably knew it would happen eventually but it’s been such a rollercoaster.

Jackie: It’s not like he hasn’t worked hard. He’s worked so hard. And he’s only a little baby. But he was only a baby. You know what I mean. It’s tough, being out there on your own.

Jack: Yeah, it’s hard.

Jackie: It’s hard, son. He was the best on that pitch [against Bulgaria]. I don’t care what anyone says. He was the best, the best. I thought he was the best. Two assists. What more did you want?

Jack: My family did a video of behind the goal when I took the corner. It just happened to me exactly where it went out and I took the corner. I remember them sending it to me after and I was thinking ‘fucking hell like, what just happened?.

Jackie: I’m happy with him here. I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d feel. If he wants to go, there’s nothing I can do. But I’d be very sad. That’s all I can say. I love having him here. He’s gas, the craic he brings to the house.

Jodie: The house is alive again with him back.

Jackie: The slaggin’s an’ all. It’s great, isn’t it, Jack?

Jack: Ah, it’s brilliant, yeah.

Jackie: It’s great having a man back in the house again, it’s great. I love it.

Jackie: Would you like him to go back?

Jodie: No, no I wouldn’t. I think if he’s happy going back then, yeah, of course, but we’d always be over with you. That’s the thing. If you weren’t back, you wouldn’t be getting rid of us because we’d be over there.

Jackie: He used to be embarrassed asking us to go over when he wasn’t playing. He only told us that when he got home. He had to open up loads. We were going over to see you. Not to see you play. But he couldn’t get that out of his head.

Jack: You think they’re coming over to watch you play football but they’re just coming over to see you. You feel guilty, you know, because you’re interrupting their daily life, getting them to come over to you.

Jodie: We were loving coming over to you.

Jack Byrne mam 3 dad siblings A family photo featuring a young Jack, Jackie and his father John. Source: Instagram/Jack Byrne

Three years after John Byrne lost his battle with cancer, Jack signed for Manchester City at the age of 14. The selfless nature of Niall Flynn following John’s passing is an example of how their community in Clonliffe rallied around to support the family. “Steo, Jack’s brother, was my best friend. They were like my second family anyway,” he explains.

“When John died, Jackie or Steo didn’t drive at the time. They asked me if I would mind bringing Jack to his [St Kevin’s Boys] games until they got back on their feet. So that just brought myself and Jack closer, and the family closer, it became a habit then. I just had a kid myself when that happened, so I used to get him minded and bring Jack to his games every week.”

There were further struggles once Jack left for England, as the family continued to deal with grief, and for Jackie it felt like another loss all over again as she watched her youngest child leave for England.

Jackie: I have to say it was horrific. When he died I had four kids. John did everything for Jack, absolutely everything. Jack even slept in with us, we were that close. When he died, it was just, you’re in limbo and you’re trying to get the kids up for school. When he was dying he said to me: ‘Jack is going to play for Ireland, he’s special’. He always said it. It was John who used to go to all of the games. I only went in the summer because it was freezing in the winter. When he died, I used to be overwhelmed with it. I used to go and watch his games, I’d sit with my friend Rose and him [Niall] and Stephen. We’d have our little chairs and our blankets. I know the game now but at the time I didn’t, they’ve explained it to me, and he was a joy to watch. I fell in love with it and I wouldn’t miss anything.

Jack: When he passed away I was going on a lot of trials then. That’s when it was starting really. I was 11 when he died and I was 12/13 going to clubs.

Jodie: You were away every weekend.

Jack: It was my release but it was difficult as well because at that age you don’t really know what you’re going through. It was only really a couple of years ago that it hits you and you can come to terms with what actually went on.

Jackie: It really hit you after the Ireland game.

Jack: Yeah, stuff like that. Just when you want him to be there. But the couple of years after he died when I was going away, it was all a big blur. You come to 14 and you just have to make a decision: ‘right, this is where I’m going to go’ and to be fair it has absolutely flown in like. It’s gone like that [clicks finger].

Jodie: I knew he was good when he was away [in England] but when people are coming up to me in my job: ‘oh my god, you’re brother is Jack and he’s doing amazing’. To me he was only my brother but to everyone else he’s like a little celeb [laughs with everyone]. It’s weird for me because he’s just my brother. In here he gets killed. It’s just family.

Jackie: He’s [Niall] is a like a son to me and he’s [Graham Barrett] is like a son as well. Graham is the big son of them all. Three boys – Anthony, Stephen, Jack – and Jodie.

Jack: I’m the favourite. Goldenballs.

Jackie: Ah yeah, he’s ruined! All I hear is:

‘Ma, will you do this. Ma, Ma, Ma, where’s this?’

‘Where’s what, son?’

And here she [Jodie] does be: ‘you prefer him to me!’ Ah it’s great, it’s great looking after him. ‘Morning son, what you want for breakfast son, what you want for dinner, son? Any washing, son?’

Jack byrne Jodie (right) says it's great having Jack home. Source: Instagram/Jack Byrne

Jodie: Seeing him every day, I was like, I haven’t lived with him for so long. At the start we were trying to get used to it, the two of us were killing each other. Killing each other. I’m 27, he’s 23. We were killing each other. But I’d be very protective of him, he’d be very protective of me. We’re close, we go out and do stuff with each other, me him and my baby [Grace]. We’re a very close family, we’re all the same. It was weird getting used to him being home but now it’s great, we love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jack: It’s making up for lost time, isn’t it?

Jackie: Yeah, I missed him so much. I never had him as a child, letting him go away was like losing another one. I lost John, I lost my Dad and then I lost him. I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t cope with it very well and when I had to hand him over to another family I was like: ‘Oh, sweet living God’… I was never really a Mammy to him. I was a Mammy up until 11 and 12 but then I didn’t feel like I was his Mammy when he was away. I was jealous of Cath and Paul [the family he stayed with in digs]… I was, because I wanted to be there for him, I wanted to be his Mammy, so I am his Mammy now and I love it. He’s not leaving me yet, I tell ya. I was in bits before. Man City brought me round interviewing. How many families what is, Graham, about 10 or 12?

Graham Barrett: Jesus, yeah.

Jackie: Graham said to me: ‘Jackie, he has to go over’. But he wanted to, didn’t you, Jack, you really wanted it.

Jack: I did, yeah.

Jackie: And you weren’t allowed to have your money. I had it. In a joint account, I wouldn’t let him near it. He wasn’t allowed touch it without me and I wasn’t allowed to touch it without him. It was a book, like. I wanted a book. If I was to take money out, I wanted to know. Because there was like ‘Flights’ – because he used to pay for all the flights and he was like: ‘Ma, right, pay for the flights’.., and I would write everything down: ‘Flights, taxi’, so I didn’t rob any money [laughs], it was all written down. He was very good. He’d get a few bob. He got us a new kitchen, a new bathroom, TVs. He’s very kind. What did we give him at Man City? 50 pound a week? I remember him asking me if he could buy a belt, didn’t he Graham. And Graham would ring say: ‘Ah Jackie, let him get the belt’. How much is it? ‘£250?’ – (screams) £250?!”

Jack: I was lucky coming home that it wasn’t purely a financial decision. If it was, I might have stayed at Oldham and hung on. I was relaxed. I knew I didn’t have to try and nick a few quid somewhere. Maybe somebody else a little bit older, would have to maybe stay around for an extra few bob, they wouldn’t have an option to come back to a Shamrock Rovers. I was lucky that, obviously, it went well up until the point I was decided to come home.

Graham: If there was a template, then this is the family, absolutely. If you’re talking to a young kid now, 14, 15, who is going to a big club, you’d nearly want to sit them on that couch and put Jackie in the room with the family for two hours.

Jackie: And he picked where he wanted to go. It wasn’t that I didn’t like any of the families, they just weren’t like me.

Flynner: You’re a one of a kind in fairness!

Jackie: I wasn’t great for about a year. I would go into his room and be crying and everything. Then going over to him and having to come back.

Jodie: Coming back was the hardest thing.

Jackie: We’d would Skype him and he had this yellow wall behind him. I’d see it and say [pretending to cry] ‘ah look at him, Jodie, he’s at the yellow wall, the yellow wall again’. I felt he was lonely.

Jack: Sometimes I was, yeah.

Jackie: Every night we would sit here for hours, wouldn’t we, Jodie. She’d be doing people’s hairs and we’d be talking to him on Skype. I knew when he was down because he would talk to me for hours.

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Jack Byrne Graham Barrett Jack's agent and friend Graham Barrett (front centre), his brother Stephen (left) and Niall 'Flynner' Flynn (back left) on a trip to see him play for Dutch club SC Cambuur. Source: Instagram/Jack Byrne

And those were just the early days, when Byrne’s star as one of Man City’s hottest prospects was still rising.

Much worse was to follow, the extent of which eventually led to him returning home to sign for Shamrock Rovers last December.

At 19, a loan move to SC Cambuur in the Dutch top flight showcased the midfielder’s talents to a wider audience. Martin O’Neill, then the Ireland manager, invited Byrne to train with his squad a few months before Euro 2016.

His confidence and willingness to speak forthrightly about his own ability and career aims caught the eye.

But then came a spiral.

A loan deal at Blackburn was brief, a transfer to Wigan Athletic soon after in 2017 didn’t work out either and then, when it looked as if things were picking up at Oldham Athletic, financial trouble at the League One club led to him being released.

That led to Kilmarnock in Scotland, the nadir in both his professional and personal life.

Jack: Two years ago, the way things were going for me, I would never have thought I’d be lining up for Ireland. To do it, and to do it in Dublin and have everybody there who had been through the tough times with me, and obviously the highs as well of everybody talking about you when your 14. Everyone talking about you saying how great you’re going to be and then you have a little dip, then to get it back and have that moment and share it with everyone was special.

To be fair, I was probably wasting my career away where I was at Kilmarnock. I wasn’t in good enough shape. Coming home, I was probably in a situation where I was wasting my career and I needed to do something to get the hunger back and get the fight back in my belly.

Jackie: You were struggling mentally at that time.

Jack: I was broken. I wasn’t in a good place. People were right when they were saying I was miles away from the player I should be. You have to take it on the chin when you come home, people are going to say certain things but the people I talk to now say it’s probably the best decision you ever made coming home. I know myself that it was.

Jackie: It was bad. We went over to Kilmarnock; me, Jodie and the baby Grace. And he wouldn’t talk. Normally he would play with the baby and all of that but he was very quiet for about three days so I said to Jodie we’d make a nice Sunday roast and get him sitting round the table talking and we’ll try and get stuff out if him. I made the dinner, he comes in, says: ‘thanks Ma’, that was it. He sits at the table and the fork is like that [pretends to move it around the plate]. I said: ‘oh sweet Jesus, there’s something wrong’.

He says: ‘oh, Ma’.

I says: ‘what? You can tell me anything’.

He just says: ‘get me out of here’.

I was straight on the phone to Graham, I was panicking, I told him Jack’s not right. Graham just said right, don’t worry about it’, as usual, like he always does. My hero. He is my hero. He would do absolutely anything for us. 100%, million per cent trust with him with any decision. If Graham says to me: ‘this is what we’re doing’, I go: ‘I trust you’. He’ll ask me about it and I’ll tell him I trust him. I can ring him when I’m upset or worried. I just idolise him and I think he’s an amazing agent and amazing son to me [laughs].

Jodie: He’s been so good.

Jackie: He’s been very good, you have been, Graham, and I’m glad I get the opportunity to say it to your face, thanks for everything you have done for us as a family.

Graham: Ah, look, I retired at the same time as Jack was beginning. Being around, they have been much better for me than I have for them. It’s hard to retire at 27, you know, being around Jackie, Jack, Jodie, the other players, it helps you recover from that type of thing. You’re never really recovered when you retire. You’re always thinking about your career, it’s amazing being a football player but when it’s gone, it’s gone. The job I fell into helped me. It’s very kind what Jackie said, I love her, but they have done far more for me than I have for them.

Jackie: I took Graham to the side and says: ‘I’m really worried’. Graham just said: ‘leave it with me’, and he had him home, at a club in two weeks. I couldn’t believe it.

Flynner: I think before that, what sticks out in my mind, Jack is fairly confident. He has always been like that, since he was eight. He would never let his mam talk for him when it comes to football but when myself, Graham, Jackie and Steo went for lunch with Jack over Christmas he just sat there at the opposite side of the table and he was just blank, he let Jackie do all the talking for him. That was something I never seen.

Graham: In the 10 years I looked after Jack, I never had a phone call or a conversation with Jackie that worried me as much at that time. It was serious. You knew on the phone he was down and that but when he did come home you could see exactly in his face he was broken. Like, he’s a little bollix isn’t he, in terms of a messer, but he was really, really in a bad place.

Jack: I couldn’t see a way back, on and off the field. It’s like two different people now. It’s a completely different mindset I was in. People who met me back then probably think it’s a completely different person. I kind of hid myself away for a while.

Jackie: You were depressed.

Jack: I was probably a bit depressed, yeah. Going through the motions and waiting for something to happen but nothing was going to happen. It was a long road back to trying to have a happy medium again when it was alright.

Jackie: It was absolutely amazing when he came home, he was just so different. He was happy, I mean that’s all we’ve wanted for you in your life ever was for you to be happy. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are, once you’re here with your Mammy [bursts out laughing].

Jack: It’s the most relaxed I’ve been, the happiest I’ve been. It’s been good to be around the family, and spending time with them. It’s been a good year.

jack-byrne-celebrates Playing with a smile back on his face: Byrne has been immense for Shamrock Rovers this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Tomorrow it could get even better – and there will still be more to come as Byrne has also been included in the provisional Ireland squad for the friendly with New Zealand and final Euro 2020 qualifier against Demark later this month.

Silverware is the name of the game this weekend and for Byrne, he feels it would be the perfect way to repay manager Stephen Bradley.

Jack: He just cares. I can see that he actually cares about me. I wouldn’t want to let him down because he’s put a lot of faith in me because I probably wouldn’t have signed me last November looking at the person I was and the player I was then. If I was a manager, if I was him, looking at me, it would be a massive risk. I probably wouldn’t have taken it and that’s being honest.

For him to put that faith in me and tell me I’m going to play every week, and be one of their main men, it gave me that boost I needed, that bit of belief, it gave me something in the back of my head that I don’t want to let this person down. I can’t act the maggot here. I had to put the head down and try and repay the faith he had showed in me.

Jackie: He knew I was very concerned about Jack. I just said to him: ‘I want my son happy’.

Graham: We met him without Jack

Jackie: Yeah the first time and they were saying: ‘This is what we’re going to do, this is the plan, we know he’s not fit but we’ll get him there, you’re not to worry, we’re going to get him in and look after him for you’. And I absolutely trusted him, I knew. And you’ve matured. You see the game now, and you can read the game now. Nobody will be treating you like a lump of meat now!

Graham: It’s always annoyed me, the perception of him. It’s always really annoyed me because he’s a great kid, you know. He’s a kid. That’s a common denominator. Kids make mistakes. They’re immature when they are younger. They mature more when they get older. It’s that simple. He’s matured

Jackie: He’s after maturing a lot.

Jack: Just being around people in Ireland and people seeing you day-to-day and how you carry yourself. It’s 100% helped me because I agree with that, the perception people had of me probably was big-time and flashy. It’s far from the case. When you’re on a bit of a downward spiral, people want to hit you when you’re down. You’re adding fuel to the fire when you’re not doing well. When you’re doing well, they can’t really say anything. When I wasn’t doing well, people have this perception of you.

Jackie: Not around here, not around here. They love him. No, not around here. You get the odd eejit having the odd comment: ‘He should have gone here, he should have gone there’. And I just say: ‘Since when were you a bleedin’ manager?’. I don’t listen to them. Around here, everyone is 100% behind Jack. We’ll be all there, Sunday, won’t we. And they’re going to win, I know they are. I feel it.

Graham: It’s very tough.

Jack: It’s going to be close.

Flynner: From a neutral point of view, you’d like to think this one would break the record for attendances with the form that Jack is in, the form that Michael Duffy is in.

Graham: I’m looking forward to actually seeing the game, two teams that get the ball down and play.

Jack: It will be a good game, close. Both teams are better on the front foot, I agree with that.

Jackie: Rovers are going to win.

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David Sneyd

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