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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 25 October 2020
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'Michael O'Neill pinned my article to the dressing room wall to fire up his players'

Conan Byrne learned the hard way that giving your opinion in the media isn’t always warmly received.

Former Shamrock Rovers boss Michael O'Neill.
Former Shamrock Rovers boss Michael O'Neill.
Image: ©William Cherry/Presseye

WHEN YOU WRITE a column or do an interview, you rarely think of the impact that it can have on others. It’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But don’t be surprised if someone tells you where to stuff it.

I can remember when I was told as much for the first time. It was in 2011 and Michael O’Neill was manager of Shamrock Rovers. He probably knew me then as nothing more than just another player in the League. Well, that was until he read my column on ExtraTime.ie.

Rovers had just come through the Dublin Derby with Bohemians — the one where Keith Buckley scored a memorable goal and then immediately shot off to his part-time job in a pub — and I was quite frank in my assessment about the Hoops’ lack of style. I wasn’t particularly damning about them, but perhaps I was too naïve not to consider that any form of criticism would rankle with the league champions.

O’Neill had such distaste for my article that he pinned it to the dressing room wall to fire up his players. He wanted everyone in the team to know what others thought of them. And it worked. Karl Sheppard, who was a Rovers player at the time, outed me on Twitter in a Conor McGregor-esque tone by posting: “Who is this guy Conan Byrne?” He was right. I had no experience in playing this type of game and my views at the time were probably delivered more off the cuff.

In hindsight, I should have actually been at the game to get a proper feel for it. Honestly, I only got to see my first Bohs-Rovers game last year in Dalymount Park because I’ve always been playing on Friday nights. Yet, here I was offering my tuppence on a game I knew little about. Dublin derbies between these two clubs aren’t about free-flowing attacking football. It’s about winning. No wonder O’Neill was fuming.

At that time, Rovers’ assistant manager was Trevor Croly and he was a good friend of my manager at Shelbourne then, Alan Mathews. Trevor let Alan know in no uncertain terms what he thought of my column and Alan kindly gave me much-needed advice that I hold on to this day. Essentially, be careful what you say in the media while still playing in this league.

So my initial introduction to media work wasn’t very pleasant. I decided to take a break from it and concentrate on my football. But around four years later, I met Gareth Maher at a Show Racism The Red Card event in the Aviva Stadium. Gareth was a journalist for the Irish Daily Mail and he suggested that I should give media duties another shot.

By this stage, I had more experience behind me, I was more successful on the pitch and I was more comfortable with standing by my opinions — mainly because they were largely positive in trying to promote the League. Little did I know that that conversation would kickstart all of my work in the media from then onwards.

When Gareth moved to the FAI and became their communications manager, he got in touch about a new project: a weekly podcast on the League. This wasn’t a new thing as there were a good number of podcasts in existence at that stage but Gareth wanted to, boldly, use a player currently involved in the League and pair him with a more experienced broadcaster. He thought that I would work well with, and learn from, Con Murphy. And he was spot on.

The relationship with Con worked a dream. He won’t like to be called a veteran broadcaster, but he’s been there and done it all. For League fans, they would have known him best as the presenter of Monday Night Soccer on RTÉ (or else that chap from Crimecall). He was such a professional and we developed an almost telepathic understanding from early on. It is why our podcast, Greatest League in the World, proved to be so popular.

Before the podcast was launched, I still had to tell my then-manager that I was about to embark on this venture. I was playing for St Patrick’s Athletic and even though I shared a good relationship with Liam Buckley, I knew that this was going to be a tricky conversation to have.

It wasn’t that common in our League for a current player to be a weekly media commentator. So when Liam closed the door to the vacant dressing room behind him and said “so I hear you’re going to be hosting a podcast”, I think the only sound that was made came from my stomach gurgling. I tried to mutter something in response, but couldn’t find the right words (not a good start for a podcast co-host!). But Liam ended up being very supportive, albeit offering some words of warning — just like Alan Mathews did years previously.

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My team-mates reacted very positively to my involvement in the podcast. They respected the work I put into the show and would often comment on some new-found knowledge that they learned from tuning in. Some players even contacted me wanting to come on the show to discuss their careers or past experiences, or just for a chat. Funnily enough, if players in my dressing room heard any transfer rumour, they thought I would know them all considering the links I was beginning to build in the media world.

I knew that I couldn’t allow the podcast, which was a weekly show recorded on Sunday mornings, to affect my performances on the pitch. That would prove to my team-mates, and myself, that I wasn’t being distracted by these off-field matters. Scoring on the opening night of the 2018 season against Cork City helped and having a good season, personally, really ended any doubts about any conflict of interests.

Opposing fans loved to jeer and mock me about the podcast. I enjoyed this aspect, as it meant people were actually listening to it each week. The debates that the programme created on social media were great too. We covered so many different topics that I was learning so much about the League each week and feedback from fans, players, managers and officials suggested that they were going through the same thing. It actually made me fall in love with the League all over again.

I am very critical of myself on the pitch and I am equally critical of myself in media too. I always listen back to my work to hear how I sounded in order to improve my delivery or to hear how many times I said ‘eh’ or even to give myself a bit of self praise for a topic I felt that I debated things well. I feel it’s important to self reflect on all aspects of life, not just on the pitch. I always asked for feedback from anyone who was willing to give it. Team-mates were not shy in that regard.

Similar to being a footballer, you can only thrive when part of a successful team. I was incredibly fortunate to have Con to bounce ideas off and pick up tips from. He became a friend and a mentor during our two seasons with the podcast. Gareth was great too, as he was the main producer who came up with most of the topics, debates and guests — he was always trying to shine a light on the positive things in the League and he is never short of ideas. And then we had the guys at Unique Media, where we recorded, who were brilliant — particularly Al Dunne and Mel Brophy.

It was a real pity that the podcast came to an end. We had built up an audience, we were engaging with so many people connected to the League, and we provided — at least I feel this is the case — a product that was both entertaining and informative each week. We even held a live show in Dublin with over 100 people in attendance and that showed its potential to get even bigger.

Considering that I work as a teacher, it was no surprise that I knew the importance of having your homework done correctly. This is especially true with media work. I would never accept a job if I didn’t have enough time to prepare for it and provide proper insight and facts. I could never bluff my way through anything and that goes with any work I do. You can see it with some media pundits that they clearly haven’t prepped for a game. I would never want to be in that bracket. It’s unprofessional and lazy. Besides, I like doing homework!

My appetite for media work hasn’t waned one bit since the conclusion of the podcast. I really enjoy discussing football and revealing interesting facts about clubs and players that I suspect may interest people. Nowadays, I’m writing articles like this one for The42 (hope you’re enjoying them), regularly contribute to the RTÉ soccer podcast, dipped my toes into TV work with eir Sport and reignited that working relationship with ExtraTime.ie through co-commentating on games with the excellent Oisin Langan. I do it because I enjoy it. I like to be a positive voice on the League.

I’m still playing away with Glenavon in the NIFL. Once the football comes to an end, I certainly won’t be giving up the media work. Unless of course, it gives up on me.

- Updated at 8.15am.

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