James Crombie/INPHO Stuart Byrne (file pic).
# Looking Back
'You think back to all these wonderful players - Liam Brady, Damien Duff, Wes Hoolahan, are these types dying off now?'
Stuart Byrne on his new song reflecting on the nostalgia of playing football on the street as a child.

FOR IRISH PEOPLE of a certain vintage, the lyrics to Stuart Byrne’s new song will resonate.

It opens as follows: “We were young boys once/In an ’80s world/Cedarwood Road/Trees and the poles/Concrete for the grass and the gates for goals.”

‘The Game that We Love’ is both a celebration of and a lament for a period lost in time — essentially, Ireland of the 1980s and prior to then, when multiple forms of technology were not so readily available and there were few options for children other than to while away the hours playing football on the street.

Increasingly, there is a feeling that modern youngsters would prefer to stay indoors and avail of the numerous forms of digital entertainment available to them. 

Going out to play sport unsupervised for endless hours seems less habitual — and there is evidence to support that theory, such as the rising numbers of people in Ireland affected by childhood obesity.

“It’s a nostalgic look back at a very uncomplicated time in my life and a lot of people’s lives, when they remember back to being 10-12 or younger,” former Shelbourne, Drogheda and St Pat’s player Byrne says of his new song.

“As kids, we didn’t have PlayStations or other distractions really. It was very much just your mates and a ball, playing where you grew up until all hours in the night.

“And it was a wonderful thing to have. I realised from writing the song, it wasn’t just the fact that you were almost training daily as a kid to become a professional footballer, you were learning all your skills and traits as a footballer.

“You had no commitments in life. And what I mean by that is the more commitments you have in life, the more complicated your life becomes, and I suppose the more stressful your life can become.

“Mortgages, work, deadlines, all those commitments become quite difficult to manage, especially the time we’re in now. So writing the song, I just wanted to remember a time when that didn’t exist and everything was quite simple and nice.” 

The song includes references to Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup and “Milan at the San Siro,” a nod to the much-loved cult ’90s TV show ‘Football Italia,’ which was “like this injection of European culture into our very mundane Irish lives. You could see the presenter with his espresso reading the Italian newspapers, and you immediately just wanted to be him. It looked like the best job in the world. And Italian football at the time was the best league in the world. It had Maradona playing for Napoli, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit for Milan.”

The sport was very different back then and so was Ireland, as Byrne explains.

“The early-to-mid ’80s were tough. There was a lot of unemployment and football was a huge outlet for everybody. Back then, there was the dream of getting to England and it was kind of doable. 

“When you got the opportunity to watch the old First Division, you were looking at the likes of Liverpool or Man United and there were a lot of Irish players on those teams back then — Ronnie Whelan at Liverpool, Paul McGrath at United. You really did look up to them.

“That period spanned the old Ireland transitioning into a more prosperous Ireland. And it was apparent last summer when we were looking back at the Italia ’90 [30th anniversary] stuff.

“All of a sudden, there was this boost of confidence to the nation that people thought ‘maybe, we’re a lot better than we give ourselves credit for,’ it all evolved and started to change.”

Stuart Music / YouTube

So does he feel sad that the time has now passed and life is inalterably different?

“I do, yeah. That time gave us a lovely perspective on life, because life was purely you and your friends, and you created eternal friendships. My best friends back then, Lorcan and Christopher, are still my best friends now. 

“I tend to worry about the future of the game in Ireland if we don’t have kids learning their trade or trying things in their own comfort on the road, their back garden or on the green, they’re not trying things repetitively, trying to make themselves better players.

“You do tend to worry about what effect it will all have on the game of football in Ireland. 

“As kids get older and come through, are they coming through with the same technical ability as they would [in that period]? John Giles was on Newstalk [the other night] speaking about exactly this.

“They developed these technical skills from very early on, trying different things out on the streets, developing their touch, developing their awareness, making mistakes, trying things, because the more you make mistakes, the more you learn from them and the better you become. You think back to all these wonderful players — Liam Brady, Damien Duff right the way through to Wes Hoolahan, are these types dying off now? What are we seeing? Are we seeing more coached kids?

“I do know from when my own young lad was playing in schoolboy football a few years ago, there did seem to be a dropoff in the number of teams playing in the league.

“I know the demographic changes all the time. A lot of Dubs move out to Meath, then the leagues in Meath become bigger and the Dublin leagues drop off. I get that. But you do worry about the state of the game and where this is all going. The reality is the internet, mobile phones, game consoles, they have kids addicted, they have a hold on them and that’s the worry. Where does this all end?”

One of the big differences with top footballers being produced now compared to when Byrne came of age is that instead of playing on the streets, many youngsters hone their skills within the safer, more structured confines of an academy environment. 

“They’re getting access to that professional coaching end of it, which is great. The worry would be that we’re not going to produce the players that can change a game for you with a moment of magic.

“We’ve always produced those types of players, but in recent times, we’ve under-used them as well. We’ve been guilty of not giving those players the kind of limelight [they deserve] and maybe that hasn’t helped.

“If you look at Wes Hoolahan, who was hugely under-used under Giovanni Trapattoni and even under Martin O’Neill, it’s very difficult to convince a young footballer to be like Wes if he’s not going to be played by Ireland. Some managers look at talent like that as being a negative rather than a positive.” 

He continues: “I suppose what we are seeing is an evolution of the type of player coming through. And maybe it will produce technically better players, time will tell.”

Returning to the topic of music, Byrne, an avid guitar player since his teens, began officially releasing songs in 2019.

As with all musicians, the pandemic has complicated matters for the 44-year-old former footballer. However, he also works as a software engineer as well as being a pundit and so is grateful to have an alternative means of income.

“It’s been a horrendous time for musicians out there. God help them, I don’t know how they’ve got through it. And I don’t think they’ve been helped by the government either. The funding that’s in place is not good enough, because it’s quite unique to them, how they operate.

“And I gladly take myself out of it, because I have a job as well and I’m able to survive and get by. But I don’t know how full-time musicians have been able to survive. I would imagine we’re going to see a huge change in the musical landscape. I don’t know how these guys can keep going the way they’re going, and they’ve probably grown quite fearful of where the industry is going to go.

“The prominence of Spotify and these streaming platforms is worrying, because the artists are not getting paid nearly as much as what they should be. So the music industry needs to re-think how it operates. What Covid has proved is what’s there at the moment doesn’t work.

“There’s a movement [protesting] that social media giants need to do more to support their users. It’s too easy to step back and take billions and not put any rules or conditions on the content you can put out. 

“The same needs to happen with these music giants as well — they need to start giving back a lot more to the artists than they get at the moment.”

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