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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019

'It was such a positive thing for my mental health' - The ex-Irish footballer embarking on a music career

Ex-Shelbourne star Stuart Byrne has just released his debut EP.

Stuart Byrne represented a number of League of Ireland clubs, including Shelbourne.
Stuart Byrne represented a number of League of Ireland clubs, including Shelbourne.
Image: Andrew Paton/INPHO

MUSIC AND FOOTBALLERS do not always make happy bedfellows.

For every ‘Three Lions,’ there are 10 embarrassing ‘Hoddle and Waddle’-type attempts, or other novelty pap that is quickly banished from the memory and consigned to bargain bins across the country.

As a result, any footballer that attempts to make music has to deal with the general public’s inherent preconceived ideas and assumptions that they lack either talent, sincerity or both.

Stuart ‘Stuey’ Byrne is best known as a footballer who enjoyed considerable success in the League of Ireland, winning the title on four occasions and playing for Shelbourne, Longford and Drogheda among others.

Now 42, he has stayed in the public eye since retiring, writing columns in the media (including for The42 at one point) and appearing on Soccer Republic among other outlets, giving his thoughts on all matters pertaining to the League of Ireland.

Yet even those who have followed Byrne’s career closely over the years will, until recently, have been unaware of his musical proclivities.

Last February, in an interview on Off the Ball, he spoke publicly for the first time about some of the songs he had written. What had previously been a hobby developed into something more serious. Last Monday saw the release of his debut EP ‘I Could Never Be,’ with an album set to follow.

I didn’t think it would be [live] yesterday,” he tells The42, during an interview last Tuesday. “They tell you it could be anything up to five days. I uploaded them on Sunday and they sort of appeared on Apple Music, YouTube and Spotify. It was a nice surprise.”

In some cases, a footballer’s music can come across as a vanity project and a soulless endeavour to further exploit their fame. Yet in this instance, it does not seem in any way cynical. It is not some impromptu attempt to make a quick buck. Byrne has been playing guitar since his late teens. One of the songs on the EP was written when he was 19.

The former star even considered quitting football altogether at one stage, before a then-little-known young manager by the name of Stephen Kenny met up with the disillusioned player in a pub in Swords and convinced him to join Longford Town.

The music would have to wait. In the last two years, however, he has “dived” into it. As his football career faded into an increasingly distant memory, a new passion intensified.

“It was just something I kept to myself. It was the thing I used to de-stress, relax. I brought the guitar the odd time to a few things, but I wouldn’t do it that much. I’m not one for sing-songs, I’m not one of those kinds of people. There are guys who could bang out tunes all day, I wouldn’t be like that. I’d kind of prefer to write my own stuff rather than replicate other people’s songs. But it’s something I’ve done for years.”

Stephen Kenny DIGITAL Byrne worked under Stephen Kenny at Longford. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

There are five songs on the EP, while another couple are being readied for the album, which is “pretty much finished” and might be ready to go in a couple of weeks.

“Nobody knew I was doing it, only my wife. She was very patient with me as well. But it was a great process of expressing yourself, getting a few things off your chest. A lot of sports people write books, I don’t think I’m that sort of a person, so instead of doing it that way, I expressed myself through music.”

And while the experience generally proved joyous, there was one aspect of the process that Byrne did not find particularly fun.

Fucking hell, I had no experience of the production process,” he says. “Obviously, that’s going from taking an acoustic song to a different level and that’s tough. I did a lot of it myself. I took on a big burden, but I wanted to have as much control over the songs as possible, so I arranged them a lot myself, got the instrumentation done myself to a certain point and then I just couldn’t go any further.”

The ex-Shels star ultimately enlisted the help of Gavin Glass, an acclaimed musician in his own right, to help produce three of the songs.

“He’s a seriously talented individual and a great guy to work with. I just liked his whole set-up,” Byrne adds.

The Dubliner had contemplated making music for a number of years, but a Hothouse Flowers gig he attended in Vicar Street a few years back served as a kind of lightbulb moment.

“[The band's lead singer] Liam Ó Maonlaí, who would be a good few years older than me, his voice was as good as it ever was. I just couldn’t believe what I was listening to. But just being at the gig and seeing what music can do to people, it can cheer them up, it can lift their night, it can just completely transcend them. I’m looking at Liam and there’s a seriously talented man singing like he was 21 again. I think that was a catalyst.

“It was definitely always there. Writing the songs, I was getting more and more confident about them. The old me would have done nothing about it. I would have just sat there and stewed over them and used it as a way to just sit down with my guitar. But I said: ‘Do you know what? I’m not getting any younger.’ There’s so much negativity in the world and in life, and it was a bit of a ‘just go for it’ moment and see where the journey takes me.”

Hothouse Flowers at HMV Hothouse Flowers' frontman Liam O'Maonlai helped inspire Byrne to try his hand at music. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Despite having spent years playing football in front of crowds and amid intense atmospheres, before graduating to assessing games on national television, Byrne does not consider himself a natural performer. And that shyness played a big part in his initial apprehension when it came to getting his music out there.

“I hardly watch myself on TV. I find that very difficult to do. I’m not the type of person that watches myself back on television. And listening to yourself singing, you think you’re not good enough. You look at some of the fantastic musicians that were out there and that was a big thing. It kind of still is a big thing. The journey of writing the music, getting the production done and getting it to a certain quality, each step of the way has given me a little more confidence to say: ‘Do you know what? They’re good.’”

The songs themselves have an ’80s feel and bring to mind bands from the era, such as The Blue Nile and early Talk Talk. And so far, the feedback has been generally positive, not that Byrne is overly fussed about what other people think.

Everyone else will judge you on it and that’s fine, I’m prepared for that. But I think the most important thing was that I was happy with the music. I have to live with [the songs], I have to sing them, I have to perform them.

“But I hope people find a little bit of inspiration in it. If one song was to change somebody’s attitude or somebody’s life for the better, that’s all I would ever hope for. I’m terrible at social media. It’s just something I have to really work at. I don’t go looking for the feedback.

“I’m very wary of social media. I’ve tried my best to stay away from it an awful lot and it’s probably something I’ll continue to do. It can be a fantastic thing and quite hindering as well. It’s great that people tell you they like it, and please do stop me on the street and tell me, but the most important thing is that I’m happy with it.”

Wes Hoolahan and Vinnie Sullivan 23/4/2004 One of the songs on the EP, 'Superstar,' is inspired by Byrne's former Shels team-mate Wes Hoolahan. Source: INPHO

And naturally, some of the lyrics relate to Byrne’s experiences as a footballer. The song ‘Superstar,’ he says, is inspired by Wes Hoolahan — his former Shels team-mate who went on to star in the Premier League with Norwich and for Ireland at international level.

“He’s a role model for his community when you look at what he’s achieved. He’s never had the height or the physical strength, yet he was able to just break all the stereotypes to become the fantastic footballer that he became and the fantastic ambassador for a community that he became, and he’s very much someone that people in his community look up to. He didn’t have it all handed to him. It’s quite an inspirational story.

“Kellie Harrington would be something similar as well with what she’s achieved in boxing, coming from a very similar background. 

Songs are very much about putting the negativity in life behind you, being positive and trying to push on. Even the first song, ‘Rules of Survival,’ it’s just about surviving and getting through a bad time, just getting your head down and working through it. That would have been inspired by my transition from football to the next life, because I retired from football in 2010 in the midst of a horrible financial collapse. 

“It was a very difficult time to switch careers, but the moral of that story is that sometimes you just have to knuckle down and work hard, and you’ll get through it. It’s tough, but it’s just about surviving and coming out the other side. My football career was borne out of hard work, just getting stuck in and trying to be mentally strong. I’d like to think a lot of that comes through in the music.”

Byrne has also received plenty of support during this endeavour. His sister, Kelly-Anne, is a DJ with Today FM and has provided plenty of invaluable feedback and advice in relation to the industry, while his friends at Newstalk have been similarly helpful.

In addition to finishing the album, Byrne would love to play some gigs over the coming months, but says the future is uncertain.

“I’m kind of going into it blind and I’m prepared to take the journey. For once in my life, I’m going to take a leap of faith and just go with it. I want to enjoy it, but I don’t want to [go through the motions]. I don’t think it would work out if I was to go that way. When I think about it myself, there’s no point in getting stressed out about things like that.

“The key thing about writing the music was that it was such a positive thing for my mental health. I want to stick to what I’ve been doing up until now. That has been writing music, singing and if that leads to performing and I’m happy to do that, so be it. But the important thing is that it’s a process that keeps me happy, and it doesn’t have the opposite effect, sending me down a bad road, which is a road I’m not going to go down.”

Stuart Byrne Byrne retired in 2010 and found the transition away from football tough. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

So between this long-term investment in making music, his ordinary day job as a software engineer and the football-related media work he frequently undertakes, is there anytime for sleep?

“No,” he laughs. “I’m exhausted. That’s the one thing I’m saying to people. I’m shattered by it. It’s been kind of tough like that, I have to say. I’m very lucky. I’ve a good job and a job I actually like. I don’t watch television. I don’t do things other than work and go home and just write or work on the music. It’s become my hobby, my pleasure, everything else. It’s just work and the music, and it’s been that for the past two years.

“It’s been difficult to manage, but I’m the kind of person that has to be doing something, I’m a bit of a nightmare like that. I find it difficult to sit down and watch television or go out to the pub, go on the lash, I can’t do that. I’m a bit introverted. I like my own company and I can go off into my own world — that’s something I have to be very careful of obviously. I’ve got a wonderful wife and four kids, who sometimes might say: ‘Dad, why do you always have headphones on?’ So God help them.”

On his tendency to shun TV and social media, Byrne adds: “I’m old school. I come from a different world where to communicate with somebody, you went over and spoke to them, or if you wanted to write music, you had to learn how to play an instrument and sing.

I think everyone has an artistic side to them and it’s important to express that. It can be through sport, art, music or whatever the case may be.

“My kids have never seen me play football, they were too young. They’re seeing me now expressing [myself] through music and I think it’s having a positive effect on them, because they each have their own artistic side as well. And it’s quite cute when you have your six-year-old son singing a song to you that you wrote yourself. Kids just keep you young and they remind you of the way you used to be, and that’s not such a bad thing, is it? It’s quite a nice thing actually.”

Stuart Byrne’s debut EP, ‘I Could Never Be,’ is available now. You can listen to it here.

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Paul Fennessy

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