‘Flying without Wings’ – Nicky Byrne at Cobh Ramblers

Nicky Byrne is well-known as a member of Irish music band Westlife and has enjoyed a musical career spawning twelve albums, thirteen world tours and a solo-representation for Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest. Had Nicky continued his sporting endeavours when he was younger however, his career could have been so very different.

Byrne played as a goalkeeper for Home Farm in Dublin (a club that produced Republic of Ireland internationals such as Liam Whelan, Johnny Giles and Liam Brady) where he came to the attention of Leeds United. He signed for the Yorkshire club in 1995 and went on to win the much-prized FA Youth Cup with the club in 1997, defeating Crystal Palace 3-1 on aggregate. It was the second time in five seasons that the Peacocks had won the competition and the side included future England international Jonathan Woodgate, Irish internationals Alan Maybury and Stephen McPhail and the Australian Harry Kewell. In goal, Byrne played second fiddle to Paul Robinson who would later become the England national team number one.

Upon the expiration of his contract in June 1997, Byrne played for Scarborough reserves and had a trial with Cambridge United before returning to Dublin and signing for Shelbourne by the Tolka river. He joined the then FAI Cup champions in time for their European tie match against Scottish Cup winners Kilmarnock. Manager Damian Richardson hoped that international clearance would allow the keeper to be available to play against Bohemians in the LFA Presidents Cup final. Towards the end of July 1997, Byrne came on as a substitute in front of a 6,000 strong crowd at Tolka Park as Shels took on his former employers Leeds in a friendly. He was beaten by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from close range in what was the winning goal in a 2-1 victory for the Elland Road club.

The following month Byrne was loaned to Cobh Ramblers, led by Stuart Ashton, with the keeper’s debut coming against Waterford United in a Harp Lager League Cup fixture. This was followed by a victory over Kilkenny City in the same competition with Rory O’Connor scoring the winning goal. The Examiner reported that a header from Brendan Rea saw Byrne pull off a spectacular save to aid the Claret & Blue cause.

A Ramblers side with the strike force of Tony Izzi and Terry Eviston was going to cause many of the League of Ireland First Division clubs’ problems as noted by the Connacht Sentinel in their match report of Cobh’s 1-0 victory over Galway United. However, the same report outlined that ‘Byrne appeared to be a suspect custodian, especially under high balls, but this apparent weakness was not exploited by United’. Yet Byrne was the hero in his side’s victory over Longford Town. Though Tony Izzi scored his first goal of the 1997/98 season and the only goal of the game, Byrne came to the rescue late on when diving at the feet of Niall Sheridan to guarantee the three points.

Two weeks later the keeper started in the club’s then ignominious record defeat to Bray Wanderers at the Carlisle Grounds. Ramblers defender John Murphy was sent off after nine minutes and Bray took the lead from the resultant free-kick with Richie Parsons scoring a header from the cross. Wanderers would lead at half-time by four goals with Liam McMahon, the club’s general manager, sent off. The side went down to nine men with Keith Dalton receiving his marching orders and Bray scored a further three goals in the final 15 minutes. It was a largely disappointing season for Ramblers as the club finished in sixth place, 15 points adrift from the play-off place. Byrne played 15 games.

At the end of his time with the Rams, Byrne went on to have spells with St. Francis and even lined up for Bray Wanderers against Ipswich Town. Byrne was always conscious his height of 5ft 9″ worked against him and felt it was part of the reason why he was released by Leeds United. He notes that playing for the Republic of Ireland under-15s and under-18s as some of his proudest moments. One wonders would Nicky Byrne swap the sales of over 50 million albums for an international cap. For certain he can call himself a former Rambler as his time in Claret & Blue is part of the rich history of the St. Colman’s Park club.

In June 1998, the former Rambler stopper attended an audition for a new boy band (after leaving St. Francis in 1997). Alongside Kian Egan, Mark Feehily, Shane Filan and Brian McFadden the group became Westlife under the management of Louis Walsh and enjoyed stratospheric fame and fortune. Since then Byrne has also presented television and radio shows, represented Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest and been a prominent figure in raising funds and attention for many charities. Byrne’s wife is Georgina Ahern, daughter of former Taoiseach and Manchester United fan Bertie Ahern. In 2002 Byrne was able to combine soccer and music with his involvement in the song ‘Here Come the Good Times’ for that year’s FIFA World Cup. It included the Irish World Cup Squad, Christy Dignam of ‘Aslan’, Eamonn Dunphy and RTE commentator George Hamilton

CIAN MANNING

 

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