Making a mark
Byrne still hungry for more after upsetting Premier League opposition
The Gillingham midfielder played a pivotal role as the League One side dumped Cardiff City out of the FA Cup.

MARK BYRNE CAN still remember the dreaded sound of the 3am alarm that often summoned him from his bed when his father needed a hand at work.

The early morning starts were made even more unpleasant by the thought of where many of his former team-mates were while he was helping with the bread deliveries.

Gillingham v Cardiff City - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Priestfield Stadium PA Wire / PA Images Mark Byrne (left) tangles with Joe Ralls of Cardiff City. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

When he was 16, the likes of Anthony Stokes, Adam Rooney, Robert Bayly and Simon Madden had already crossed the Irish Sea in pursuit of the dream they all shared. 

Byrne progressed into the Leinster Senior League with Crumlin United, fearing that the opportunity to earn a living as a footballer in England had passed him by.

In hindsight, he counts the extra couple of years he spent at home in Dublin as a blessing in disguise. Without them, he reckons he may not have spent this week reflecting on a victory over a Premier League club in his 12th season as a professional.

By the time he signed for Gillingham two-and-a-half years ago, Byrne was approaching his 28th birthday with over 250 appearances in English football already under his belt.

His time on the south-east coast of England has since presented him with the opportunity to feature in two games he jointly considers to be his career’s pinnacle.

Byrne scored his first Gillingham goal by equalising late in a League Cup game against Watford in August 2016. They eliminated the Premier League club after extra-time, before being beaten by a Tottenham side led by Christian Eriksen.

Last Saturday, he was pivotal in the centre of midfield as the League One outfit caused another upset against a top-flight team, Cardiff City. In front of a 7,090 attendance at the Priestfield Stadium, Elliot List struck for the game’s only goal in the 81st minute to send Gillingham through to an FA Cup fourth-round meeting with Swansea City.

The Emirates FA Cup / YouTube

“It was massive for us,” says Byrne. “I think we deserved the win too. We had a gameplan to keep it quiet for the first half an hour, and then to have a go after that.

“They started getting a bit frustrated and trying long balls. We knew we’d get chances. We had a right go in the second half and we got our rewards. We were delighted.

“I was hoping to get [Manchester] United away in the next round but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The Swansea game is another one that we’ll go into and have a go. It’s certainly something to look forward to anyway.” 

Were it not for the intervention of a former Crumlin United team-mate, Byrne would have featured in the biggest shock that involved an Irishman on FA Cup third-round weekend. Twenty-four hours after Gillingham’s defeat of Cardiff, Padraig Amond scored the winner for League Two side Newport County against Leicester City.

Incidentally, Newport are one of the clubs who have had Byrne on their books since he first moved to the UK back in 2007. The pain of rejection inflicted on him by several clubs finally healed when he was signed by Nottingham Forest at the age of 18.

His progress at the City Ground was swift. In his first season — which ended with Forest achieving promotion back to the Championship — Byrne was handed his first-team debut by Colin Calderwood in a League One win over Cheltenham Town. 

“I was getting a bit worried when I hadn’t gone to England at 15 or 16,” he says. “A lot of other lads were going over at that age so I was starting to think I’d missed the boat. I was probably wondering what I was going to do with my life at that stage.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League One - Nottingham Forest v Cheltenham Town - City Ground EMPICS Sport Byrne during his Nottingham Forest debut in April 2008. EMPICS Sport

“But I kept going. Looking back now, I think 15 or 16 is probably a bit too young for lads to be going over. They’re on their own and there’s pressure on them to grow up straight away. A lot of lads end up coming straight back.

“I remember being in digs with Corey Treacy at Nottingham Forest. He just got fed up, packed his bags one night and went home. It happens a lot. It’s different for the English lads because they can go home often enough. It can get lonely for the Irish lads who don’t have that. I definitely think that going over a bit later helped me in the long run.”

Byrne’s prospects of nailing down a place in the Forest team weren’t aided by the sacking of Calderwood in December 2008. Aside from a substitute appearance in an FA Cup defeat to Derby County, he didn’t feature in the plans of new manager Billy Davies.

Loan spells at Burton Albion and Rushden & Diamonds afforded him the opportunity to garner some much-needed experience of competitive first-team football. He then helped Barnet to consolidate their League Two status, before signing a two-year deal with the club when his Forest contract expired in 2011.

For Byrne, what makes a victory over a Premier League club particularly special is the memory of tougher times when such a feat would have seemed unattainable. While his current employers have ambitions of playing in the Championship, it’s only five years since he was in a team that finished below Gateshead and Braintree Town.

Under the management of Edgar Davids, Barnet were relegated in 2013. Dropping down to non-league football may have seemed an ominous setback, but Byrne reacted positively. After one season in the Conference, he earned a move back to League Two.

Soccer - npower Football League Two - Chesterfield v Barnet - Proact Stadium pa wire With Edgar Davids at Barnet. pa wire

The Kilnamanagh native spent two years at Newport County, the second of them as club captain. Justin Edinburgh — the manager who brought him to both Rushden and Newport — then signed Byrne at Gillingham, who recently rewarded him with a new two-year deal which will keep him at the club until the summer of 2020.

Currently sitting in 19th place ahead of this afternoon’s visit to Burton Albion, Gillingham’s season is more likely to end with a relegation battle than a promotion challenge.

As is often the case after an FA Cup giant-killing, the perpetrators have been left wondering what could be achieved if the type of performance that toppled Cardiff City could be produced more often.

In spite of their position in the table, Gillingham have also shown glimpses of their potential in League One. Portsmouth, who have a five-point cushion at the top, were beaten twice this season by Mark Byrne and his colleagues.

“It can be hard to play like that every week, but we do need to be more consistent,” he says. “That’s been our problem. If we can do it against the likes of Cardiff, it’s probably fair to ask why we can’t do it regularly against teams in our own league. That’s up to us to find an answer to. If we could manage that, we’d be up near the top of the league.

“The Championship is definitely the aim for the club, but financially it’ll be hard. I’d say the budget here is one of the lowest in the league. It’s hard to compete with teams who have a lot more money to get players in. We’ve been unlucky this year with injuries too. I don’t think the manager has had a full squad to choose from yet.

“Beating teams like Cardiff is obviously great, but personally I’d prefer to be chasing promotion. While it’s brilliant for the fans especially, we know we’re not going to win the FA Cup. Picking up the three points on a Saturday is what you’d prefer to be doing.”

GFCofficial / YouTube

Should everything go according to plan, Byrne will have his 400th outing as a professional this year. He turned 30 back in November, yet his outlook continues to be defined by an unyielding appetite to get the most from the game while he still has the opportunity to.

Having had the briefest dalliance with the Championship at Nottingham Forest — as an 89th-minute substitute against Doncaster Rovers in November 2008 — he’s keen to earn a more prolonged opportunity to see how he’d handle the second tier of English football.

From Crumlin United to Nottingham Forest, Byrne has witnessed enough of his former team-mates climbing the ranks to justify his continued pursuit of the next level. 

Alan Power, his old friend from Dublin, was playing in the English Conference 18 months ago. Power is now on course to end this season as a contender for the player of the year award at a resurgent Kilmarnock, who currently trail Scottish Premiership leaders Celtic by a single point.

Byrne made his Nottingham Forest debut in a League One game alongside a player who went on to captain a team to the Premier League title. Wes Morgan lifted the trophy when Leicester City upset the odds by being crowned champions of England in 2016. 

“You’d definitely be inspired by stuff like that,” Byrne says. “There’s still time for me to achieve a bit more. They say your prime is between 28 and 32. Look at Wes Hoolahan; he got into the Irish team quite late. There are lots of examples.

“For me, it’s about playing to a good level personally every week and seeing where that leaves me. Every footballer wants to play at the highest level they can. I’d love to test my ability with a season in the Championship.”

Gillingham v Cardiff City - Emirates FA Cup - Third Round - Priestfield Stadium PA Wire / PA Images Celebrating with Elliot List after his goal against Cardiff City. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

With his daughter starting school next year, Byrne and his family are settled in Gillingham for now. He and his partner are due to be married when they return to Ireland in the summer, and a permanent move back home will eventually be on the agenda. He fancies a season or two in the League of Ireland before the boots are discarded.

“When I was giving my dad a bit of help back in those days, it was quite tough with the early starts,” he recalls. “He’s still a bread man now, getting up at 3am most mornings. That’s proper hard work. If football hadn’t worked out for me, I’m not sure what I’d be doing.

“I’m delighted I kept going because I’m really happy with the career I’ve had. A massive amount of players who come over to England are back home after a few years. It’s not easy to stay in the game over here.

“You don’t end up earning the kind of money that players in the Premier League are — the type of money that can set you up for life — but being paid to play the game at this level is still a privilege.”

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