After leading St Kiernans to a first-ever London senior title in 2016, Chris Byrne is now looking to bring his vast experience of the London GAA scene to bear in his next challenge, as part of Ciaran Deely’s management set-up
By Damian Dolan
Having pulled on the London jersey himself at Senior level, as well as representing the county at Junior and Under 21, Chris Byrne knows what it takes to tog out for the Exiles.
He played National League and was a substitute in 2006 when Mayo came to Ruislip in the Connacht Championship, under Noel Dunning. He also played under Pat Griffin and Iggy Donnelly.
A stalwart of the St Kiernans back line for years, having first joined the club in 1997, he subsequently made the move into management, and helped the club achieve history.
Stepping down as Kiernans’ manager at the end of this year after five years in the job, Byrne oversaw Kiernans reaching the championship semi-finals, and retaining the Division 1 League trophy.
Although preferring to decline a nomination for the London manager’s job due to work commitments, Byrne was receptive to the idea of coming on board as part of the coaching team.
He sat down with Ciaran Deely and had a “good long chat” before the county final, with Deely laying out his plans for the year ahead. Byrne liked what he heard. Deely was getting someone with vast experience to augment his team of Noel Dunning and Joe Coulter. “It’s an opportunity to give something back,” said Byrne.
“There’s a lot of lads who finish playing and then you never hear anything about them again, so it’s as much about giving a little back.
“I’m there to try and help London along, not to try and help me along in my career. I’ve been there as a player with London and I know what the commitment levels are, and they’re even bigger now, because with all the games at home next year there’s that bit of added pressure on the players.
“Everyone says it’ll be easier this year, and it will be logistically and travel wise, but when it comes to winning games people expect that little bit more when you’re at home.”
Byrne’s main remit will be the defence, with Dunning overseeing analysis and Joe Coulter the attack. He’ll also provide a “different voice”, something Deely was keen to introduce, and it’s a sentiment that Byrne agrees with.
“Ciaran’s open to playing good football and he’s very easy to work with. He tries to keep the game as simple as possible,’ he said. “Sometimes as a manager you can be repeating the same thing, and sometimes just a different voice saying it freshens things up.”
Freshening up is exactly what Byrne felt he needed after five years in the managerial hot-seat at St Kiernans.
Losing out to Tir Chonaill Gaels in a closely fought semi-final was a disappointing way to relinquish the mantle of county champions.
“I’m not saying things went stale, but we could have pushed on this year and we didn’t. Boys were a little bit happy with their lot from the year before,” said Byrne, who hails from Belmullet in Mayo.
“When we realised that it was there to be won again, it was just a little bit too late.
“But having been knocked out of the championship we still turned around and won the Division 1 League final. That will tell you the kind of players in the club and that the hunger is still there. Whoever takes them next year will have a good team and a team hungry to go for the championship again.
“Now I’ve taken a step back from Kiernans I’ve got a bit more time and I want to give that to London.”
By his own admission, Byrne might have played more for London, but work commitments and a young family dictated otherwise. Thinking and best practices have changed somewhat at county level since Byrne’s day, and since coming on board he’s been impressed by what he’s seen.
“These lads with London at the moment are a strong, tight bunch. Their commitment is absolutely unbelievable to training and their gym work,” he said.
“It wasn’t like that when I was with London, far from it. It’s a very professional set up now. It’s about how they mind themselves away from training and it’s a different science.
“We rocked up to training and slugged our guts out to get fit. These lads are in good shape, they look after themselves and they’re professional.
“That’s the way it has to be if we’re to get up into Division 3. There’s a lot of sacrifices but fair play they all buy into it. Ciaran’s very professional – it’s a good set up.”
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That will be no easy task. Carlow are first up at McGovern Park before Wicklow and Limerick make the trip to London. The Exiles’ only league win in 2017 came in a 2-15 to 0-16 victory over Carlow at Netwatch Cullen Park in Round 2, only for Carlow to get revenge in the All Ireland qualifiers.
A solitary win was all the Exiles managed in 2016 as well, with that victory coming against Waterford.
“We’ll see where we’re at after them three games. If we’ve won two out of three then great. If we haven’t, but we’re competing, then we can push on for the remainder of the league.
“If we can get up to midway in the table, every place beyond that is a bonus. We know it’s a big ask. Even though we have all our matches at home, we don’t get any match experience until the big day.
“Whereas when Carlow come to town they’ll have played the O’Byrne Cup. They’ll have those games under their belt.
“For us, it’s about hitting the ground running and being the best prepared we can for Carlow. Carlow will be tough because they’re coming off the crest of a wave. All the talk last year was about how well they did against Dublin. It’s not going to be an easy first game for us.
“I know there’s a big expectation this year and new lads will come in who’ll strengthen the team, but some lads thrive on expectation and some don’t.
“You’ve got to go out there with the belief that you’re always going to win. “If we can get everything right with the boys’ training, their fitness levels and nutrition, and get a game plan, then you’ve always a chance of winning. And that’s what we’re telling them.”