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Byrne blocks out worst day

by Keith Duggan was published in the Irish Times on Saturday the 7th of August 1999

Goals happen. That's the mantra whenever the bad hours come flooding upon Offaly goalkeeper Stephen Byrne and the spooks loom. So five rasping by him in the Leinster final? There are rarer oddities in life.

"I suppose that if someone who didn't see the game just picked up a paper and read the scoreline - even another 'keeper - they'd be inclined to ask what the hell the 'keeper was at. But there are reasons. I've never seen our defence rattled like it was that day. We had a look at the game on video, watched the goals and spoke about it. Accepted it and now it's done. You pick up and carry on, especially if you're a goalkeeper. If you let it eat at you, confidence just evaporates," he says.

Byrne, young and gleeful throughout the team's odyssey last summer, speaks like an old soldier now. He feels as if he's been around longer than two seasons. Tomorrow is his 10th championship game for Offaly since he made his debut at the start of last year's campaign. With the hours comes the wisdom.

"There's a lot of games there in a short space of time. Last year, the whole thing was just amazing. Every week seemed to bring a new twist, what with Babs and then the Clare games and next thing we were in a final. Now, it seems like we are back where we started, all to prove again."

Last summer kicked the realities in front of him. Twice he was stung by Carey set-pieces in the Leinster final, and Antrim lobbed long balls at him to check his verve. He held firm.

Then, over the three-game saga against Clare, Byrne's form soared, and by the final match his anticipation was electric. Four times he claimed shots he had no right to that day. Afterwards, he collapsed on his back and thumped the air. He had never presumed it could happen so fast.

"I played in five Leinster finals and lost them all, including last year's senior to Kilkenny. It seemed unbelievable to suddenly find myself in an All-Ireland final. But this was a team who had proven themselves before so I knew the talent was there within us, it was just a matter of tapping into it."

Thing is, that seems to be a perennial condition with Offaly.

"It's gas alright the way you hear people talk about Offaly, like we couldn't be bothered winning a Leinster title or whatever. It's probably true the lads are fairly laid back but it doesn't mean their desire to win is any less. Like, we played well against Wexford and also against Antrim. But it's the one afternoon against Kilkenny that everyone seems to be concentrating on. Doesn't bother us."

There is no great history or rivalry between Offaly and Cork and it seems odd they should suddenly be paired together at the end of the century.

"I remember sitting on my father's knee in Thurles back in 1984 when they beat us in the All-Ireland final. I was nine. Awful oul' day, they walloped us. But this team are a coming side.

"The frightening thing about them is the way they have been winning so comfortably without relying on goals. Some fine forwards there. I suppose we have it in terms of old heads and they'll have all that youthful hunger. If both teams play as they can, it could be the game of the summer though. Just hope we can keep a clean sheet."

Byrne's life as a goalkeeper evolved from chance, as is often the case. "Just went in there as a gossun and stayed there since," he shrugs.

His father, Jimmy, was more football-oriented and growing up in Kilcormac, he played both with equal enthusiasm. Four years ago, though, something gave.

"Yeah, it's funny. I was playing with Offaly in that infamous under-21 (football) game against Dublin in Parnell Park. I got a two months suspension which was later quashed. But the whole thing just turned me off."

Instead, he began to concentrate solely on honing his craft between the posts (he played at half forward as a footballer).

"You'd pick up little things here and there. I always thought that Ger Cunningham did the simple things well and that's what I always try and do. It's all basics. Some things you work on. Like dropping balls. If they are falling slowly and forwards are hovering, that's the most difficult. All you can do is keep your eye on the ball. That's what happened for D J's second goal in the Leinster final.

"The ball went in and D J came across with Martin (Hanamy) with him. I had my eye only on the ball and Martin was looking at me. D J just slipped in as he's so good at. Only saw him at the last moment."

But it's all meaningless history now. Since Byrne began keeping goal with Offaly, alert and bright faced beneath a peaked cap, he grew accustomed to seeing the six in front of him calmly smother opposition attacks. They played in patterns which became second nature to him and he seamlessly fitted into this unflappable, super efficient defence which became the bedrock for last year's All-Ireland. Now, they are poised once more.

"It was only at the semi-final stages last year that the championship took off. I hope it's the same again this year. All I know is we'll give it a good rattle and I'd love to be back in a final. Cork have the same idea. And if they have the hurling on us, well, good luck to them."

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