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'Not alone was he the Ireland physio, but he was an agony aunt to the players as well'

Mick Byrne and Charlie O’Leary played important roles in the Ireland set-up for many years.

Mick Byrne and Charlie O'Leary All smiles: O'Leary and Byrne in 1999. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

THEIR OFFICIAL ROLES were as physio and kitman, but Mick Byrne and Charlie O’Leary brought so much more to the Ireland’s international set-up as a loveable odd couple during the country’s glory days.

Byrne was brought on board by the FAI in 1973 when John Giles took over as manager and would go on to become an indispensable part of the backroom staff during the Charlton, McCarthy and Staunton eras.

Not only did he look after the physical well-being of the players, Byrne was also a friend, confidante and intermediary between them and the manager.

Former League of Ireland referee O’Leary arrived shortly after Jack Charlton’s appointment in 1986 and the pair became inseparable while catering to the wide-ranging needs of the team during a period that took in Euro 88, Italia 90 and USA 94.

O’Leary, who turned 92 in February, retired in 2000, while Byrne left briefly after Brian Kerr’s appointment but would return for Stan’s short-lived spell in charge.

With Ireland on their way into another major tournament, we recently spoke to them both about the good times…

You two were part of the Ireland set-up during its most successful period, but do you have a memory that stands out from that time?

MB: My favourite memory… As an Irish catholic, meeting the pope in 1990 would have to be up there.

But if you’re talking about football-wise, there was the game in Stuttgart when we beat England. That was the first time ever we beat them on foreign soil. They were unbelievable memories. It was fantastic… The side they had out that day!

The Irish team meet Pope John Paul II 1990 Charlie, Mick, Jack and the team with Pope John Paul II on their visit to the Vatican during Italia 90. Source: INPHO

Embarking on Euro 88 would have been all new as Ireland had never reached a major tournament before. Had you any idea what you were getting yourselves into? 

MB: I had been involved in it so long. I started with the U15s with Billy Young. Then I was involved with Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, Shelbourne and Athlone Town.

It’s really no different to them in terms of the organisation for me and him (points to O’Leary). Charlie with the kit and me playing the role of the psychologist, psychiatrist… whatever you want to call it! That’s what we were, really.

It was a fantastic journey as it was the first time ever Ireland qualified for a major tournament.

Nowadays, the backroom staff consists of a dozen or so specialists. Did you both find yourselves acting in a number of roles to assist the players in whatever way you could?

COL: The thing about it was, when Jack came along he was a wonderful man-manager and he had Mick in charge. Not alone was he the physio, but he was also an agony aunt as well.

The lads trusted him if they had a problem and they depended on him to go to Jack. I won’t mention names but I remember one lad whose wife was expecting.

He said it to Mick, who passed the message onto Jack. That player was told to go home to England for the day and be back. When that chap returned, he was one of the best players!

There was another Dublin lad whose father wasn’t well one time. Mick said ‘there’s the keys to my car. Go up and see your father’. It was things like that.

He was the bouncer between them, but on top of that he depended on me too. We were very different — black and white. Mick was a fella to lose the rag with hotel staff and I would have to pacify them and quieten him down. Between us, we bounced off each other and we worked as a team.

Mick Byrne and Andy Townsend 1994 Mick giving Andy Townsend a rub in 1994. Source: INPHO

COL: A lot of people, the likes of Frank Stapleton and Mick McCarthy, would often tell you that we used to have rows, but they were created by the pair of us to give the players a laugh.

Remember this, at the time they had not mobiles phones or anything. In the hotel, there was a long corridor. We would take a big tumbler, put it on its side and bring along a putter and a golf ball.

You’ve no idea of the competition there was (among the players). Then, on The Late Late Show I saw one of these things that the ball springs back to you. So I bought one of them.

There was none of the modern stuff. I would hate to be with a team now because every time you look at a fella, he has things covering his ears and he’s not even listening to his team-mates.

In our day, we had the card school. Jack would never see money on the table where they were, but (Tony) Cascarino would always keep an account!

John Anderson, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath and Charlie O'Leary Frank Stapleton and Paul McGrath with O'Leary. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

COL: When we qualified for Euro 88, we were out in a hotel in Lucan. It has a golf course now but it hadn’t got one then, so we would play croquet — you know the thing with the mallet.

We’d a snooker table as well but that was all we had. So Mick went to Jack. ‘Boss’ he said, ‘the natives are getting uneasy’.

Before every training session, you would always get three or four walking wounded, as we would call them, who didn’t want to train.

On this particular Saturday, Jack came out and told us to bring the walking wounded for an hour-long walk and a half-hour in the swimming pool. Then he said to the rest ‘get your tracksuits, we’re going to the Phoenix Park races’.

That night, we’ve had our dinner and our tea when we heard the bus coming up followed by a sing-song. The lads had stopped off at a few pubs on the way back. Perfect man-management. He had them eating out of his hands after that.

One of the biggest strengths of those teams appears to have been their togetherness, which you both helped to create… 

MB: We classed ourselves as a family. From the group of players, we knew their mothers, fathers, wives. We knew everybody’s name and they all came to the hotel on a Tuesday night.

They would all come out for a cup of tea or a drink and a laugh and joke. This was the basis for the closeness among all the teams that we were with.

Everyone cared for everyone else and we looked after each other. We would meet them off the plane, bring them over and set them up the hotel and get the rooms done.

They loved coming in. They would have swam over to come in and they would be so disappointed if they weren’t on the panel. There was murder — the phone calls looking for a reason why they were left out.

Irish soccer team sharing a joke 1996 O'Leary with Mick McCarthy and the players during a team photo in 1996. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

We often hear of pranks that were played among the group. Were they a common part of life?

MB: There were loads of them. That’s what kept it alive as you’re away for weeks. The managers got the hard work out of the players but then they got the time off, because it was vital that they could let their hair down.

Jack, Mick, John Giles… they were all clever people. The players came in on Sunday and they wouldn’t have to train until Monday afternoon to give them a chance to sleep on.

Jack won a World Cup and he used to say to us ‘where are they?’. And we’d say ‘they’re all in bed’. ‘I was a player too, Mick’ he would reply. This is what would go on with us, I don’t know if it is the same with the new boys.

You’re just hoping that everything goes alright, particularly now in France. Especially for the younger players who have never been, this is going to be such a journey. Hopefully they can really enjoy it and we can see what they are made of on the big stage.

I’m really looking to France and we will get the chance to think back to what we did and how we prepared. They were fantastic times.

Were any players picked on more than others? 

MB: Oh yeah, and the fella that complained more got the most. If you took it, they wouldn’t go after you any more. But if you got wound up, the players loved that. Most were clever enough to just sit back and take it.

COL: You might remember after Macedonia beat us we had a jersey with ‘I had a Macedonia’ written on it and the player who was worst in training had to wear it all day long. Certain fellas couldn’t take it. They hated that jersey.

Was Roy Keane on the wrong end of many pranks? 

MB: People have these thoughts about Roy, but he was terrific. When we had the ten o’clock tea at night, they would all be sitting in the hallway and we would have a laugh. He was one of the last players to leave.

The great thing about teams was that every meal you went into there was never the same two players sitting at the same table. Everyone mingled and there weren’t groups or cliques, which we discouraged.

They slept well and they ate well, all the time. They would come back from training and jump into bed for an hour. Then Monday night was cinema night, Tuesday we would go into town.

The bus used to park at Bank of Ireland and you had to be on that bus at 5.30pm to come back. I don’t think a player ever missed the bus. We would go around Grafton Street, up to Michael Barry’s where they would buy all their clothes. That was the main spot.

We would go to the Mary Rose cafe in the Powerscourt town centre for tea and porter cake for Jack — two big slices.

COL: Sorry, you left the important part out. In the early years, we used to go to the Savoy Cinema and Jack took a liking to the Hill 16 pub and he would stop there.

The people in the pub would never come over. The lads would go over and sit with groups and the most they would ever take was two drinks. This drink thing was an exaggeration…

MB: That was before we came in, Charlie!

COL: Shero (John Sheridan) would be the one to start it, singing down the back of the bus ‘Jackie, Jackie… Give us a pint’. That was a regular after the cinema on a Monday night, in there about 10.15pm and stay ’til about 11pm, then back to the hotel.

MB: It was the comeraderie and the togetherness and they hated when they missed out.

Charlie O'Leary and Mick Byrne Charlie and Mick at the Aviva Stadium recently. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

I know you’re both away from the squad, but is it a different world now to the one you have described? As Charlie mentioned, the players will all have their headphones on while travelling, then there’s camera phones and social media to be careful of etc.

MB: I honestly don’t think so. Players are players, managers are managers and that will never change.

We all thought when Liam (Brady) went to Italy things might change but the group never did. You can talk about your Messi, Neymar, Suarez — they’re footballers first and foremost and this is the culture they have been brought up in.

They love letting their hair down and having a joke and a laugh. People talk about the money that’s involved now and so be it, but they’re still footballers. They still have to go out and perform. I think that’s the same today. I don’t see any difference.

COL: Going back to your point about people taking photographs with their phones, Jack, to his credit, would always caution the players that if they were in a bar to make sure you don’t have a drink in front of you if someone comes over to have their picture taken.

It can be misconstrued, and I feel quit sorry for the modern player because he’s up against it more than fellas in our time. They hadn’t got mobile phones and everyone seen a camera coming towards you. That’s not the case now and they’re under more notice now for the wrong type of publicity.

Did you every have to get a player out of a sticky situation?

MB: Millions of times, but they will stay with me!

Do you miss being a part of it now? 

MB: No. I had 40 years of it and that’s a long time. John Giles started me off with the senior internationals, then Alan Kelly had three matches. Then Eoin Hand came in, Jack, Mick and Stan.

I’ve wonderful memories from the squads I was with and I love every single one of them.

And finally, do you keep an eye on Ireland’s games these days? 

COL: I still go to all the home games. My sight isn’t the best but I have big thick glasses and my son gives me a running commentary. So I never miss a match.

I love the atmosphere, but it isn’t as loud. There’s something about the old Lansdowne Road, and we go back further to Dalymount. I was a referee for 19 years, from 1955-74, in the glory days of League of Ireland when Dalymount and Milltown was packed.

MB: He was brutal! Sent me out of the dug-out with Bohemians against Shelbourne…

Charlie O’Leary and Mick Byrne were sharing their #PowerOfGreen moments for SSE Airtricity. All customers who switch to SSE Airtricity will now receive the new official Ireland football jersey free, as well as 15% off their home energy. For more information on how to switch, please visit www.sseairtricity.com. SSE Airtricity is proud to support Irish football, as official energy partner to the Irish football team and sponsoring the SSE Airtricity League since 2010.

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Ben Blake

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