Brackley Town’s Shane Byrne is targeting FA Cup glory with the non-leaguers
If Brackley Town’s second round FA Cup tie away to Tranmere Rovers comes down to penalties, Dubliner Shane Byrne will be the first to step up for the non-leaguers.
The National League North team have twice already gone the distance to reach this stage of the competition, so will have no fears if it goes to another dreaded shoot-out.
The Northamptonshire side overcame Bishop’s Stortford 3-2 on penalties in the first round to set up Friday night’s clash with League Two Tranmere. A game being shown Live on BBC Two (KO 7:55pm).
Byrne went first and tucked his away, just as he did in Brackley’s second qualifying round shoot-out win over Billericay Town.
If they are again required to go through the ritual of penalties against Tranmere, going first is a responsibility Byrne is “happy” to accept.
The stakes now couldn’t be higher – a coveted place in the hat for the FA Cup Third Round draw, when the Premier League ‘big boys’ come in to play.
“Getting to the third round is the dream, and Live on the BBC on a Friday night under the lights at Tranmere is a good opportunity to go and do it,” the former Republic of Ireland Under 19 midfielder told the Irish World.
A Liverpool fan, a trip to Anfield would be the perfect third round tie for Byrne. The focus, though, is firmly on Tranmere.
“We can dream, but we’ve got a very tough game ahead of us,” says Byrne, who with five sisters and lots of nieces and nephews can be sure of plenty of support watching on from back home in Dublin.
“When I rang my old man and told him it was going to be on the BBC he was delighted.”
Between Brackley and a place in the third round are Tranmere. Relegated from League One in the summer, they’re currently 13th in League Two.
On 31 October, Rovers sacked boss Mike Jackson, with Ian Dawes and Andy Parkinson put in caretaker charge.
Since then, they’re unbeaten in five games, including a 2-1 FA Cup first round win over League One Accrington. Last Saturday they hammered Grimsby 5-0, before announcing former Bolton & Rochdale boss Keith Hill as their new manager.
“We’re firm underdogs going to Tranmere,” adds Byrne, who can count Matt Doherty, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick as Ireland Under 19 teammates.
It’s 12 years since a 15-year-old Byrne first made the move to England, joining Leicester City’s youth set-up, to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
He’d been spotted playing for Dublin’s Crumlin United – the club which spawned Ireland’s record goalscorer Robbie Keane.
He was part of a Leicester City side which reached the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals in 2010/11, but his professional debut would come elsewhere.
Given the chance to go out on loan to League One Bury in August 2011, an 18-year-old Byrne jumped at the opportunity.
“It was surreal; I got a phone call on the Wednesday saying ‘Bury want you on loan. Do you want to go?’ I said ‘yeh’,” he recalls.
The next morning he was training with Bury. The following Saturday he was starting against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in front of 17,000.
The Blades team included future England and Man United star Harry Maguire, as well as Michael Doyle and Stephen Quinn.
Byrne vividly remembers standing in the tunnel before the game, telling himself “this is it what you moved over to England to do”. Among the Bury fans in the stand were his parents.
“I don’t tend to get nervous now, but on that day it just hit me. I was in the tunnel just trying to calm myself,” he remembers.
“I’d realised my dream to play professionally and even if I never played again, no one could ever take that away from me. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Hooking up with Bury, though, meant pulling out of a Republic of Ireland Under 19 squad the same weekend as the Sheffield United game.
“Playing for my country was an honour and one of the best things I achieved in my career, but at that moment, what was going to benefit my career more?,” says Byrne.
“Playing a couple of friendly games, or getting Football League experience? It didn’t take me long to make up my mind.
“Speaking to one of the [Bury] lads in training, they said ‘I can’t believe you’ve chosen to come here instead of going away on international duty’. But it made sense to me.”
Very few of the aspiring young Irish footballers who head for Britain every year will fulfil their dream of becoming a full-time professional.
Most return home within a year or two, and Byrne could easily have been one of them when he came out of the pro game, but for the fact that he was in a long-term relationship at the time with an English girl.
“I was lucky; her family were very supportive. They gave me a place to live, I got a job and built my life over here,” he says.
“Had I been single at the time, I’d probably have gone back to Ireland.”
He adds: “Clubs do tell you to prepare for life if you don’t make it, but you think ‘that’s not going to be me’, I’m going to make it. It’s hard to tell that to a young kid with a dream.”
After signing permanently for Bury in 2012, he had spells with Bray Wanderers, Corby Town and Nuneaton, before joining Brackley in 2016.
Brackley had only avoided relegation from National League North in 2015/16 by points difference. The club has been banging loudly on the promotion door every season since, however.
In Byrne’s first year (2016/17), Brackley finished seventh, just outside of the play-offs.
They did, though, take the scalp of Gillingham in the FA Cup first round 4-3 in a replay after extra-time.
“That was a very good night,” recalls Byrne, although they were then knocked out by Blackpool in the second round.
Their 2017/18 promotion hopes were ended by Harrogate in the National League North play-off final.
Solace came seven days later as Brackley beat Bromley 5-4 on penalties in the FA Trophy final at Wembley in front of 31,000.
First up for Brackley in the shoot-out, Byrne saw his spot-kick saved. He could only watch on from the centre circle, and hope, as Bromley opened up a 3-1 lead at one stage.
But then drama. Bromley had a penalty to win it, only to blaze over the bar, and Brackley somehow turned the shoot-out around to clinch an improbable victory in front of their travelling support, which numbered nearly half of the town’s 13,000 population.
Among them were Byrne’s mum and dad, and ten or so other family members and friends, who’d made the journey from Ireland.
“I don’t think I’ve gone through so many emotions in all my life. I’m thinking ‘I’ve lost the FA Trophy for us. How am I going to deal with this?,” said Byrne.
“My dad’s got the game and every now and then he watches it.”
The 2018/19 season saw Brackley finish third for a second consecutive year, only to lose out in the play-off semi-final on penalties to Spennymoor. Byrne found the net with his spot-kick.
Last year’s Covid interrupted campaign also ended in penalty heartache – beaten 6-5 by Gateshead in the play-off quarter-final in July.
Byrne stroked home his spot-kick in the shoot-out, having earlier lobbed the Gateshead goalkeeper with outrageous effort from his own half, straight from the kick-off after Gateshead had just taken a 1-0 lead.
“It’s on a loop on my Twitter! It didn’t make up for losing the game, but it softened the blow,” he says.
“We’re always there or thereabouts – we’ve just not been able to get over the line.”
With something of a liking for the unusual, Byrne recently scored direct from a corner in Brackley’s 2-0 league win at Alfreton Town.
Although still only 27, Byrne recently passed 350 non-league games. Monday to Friday, he works in construction. Training with semi-pro Brackley Town is two evenings a week.
While he still harbours dreams of a return to full-time professional football, he’s happy, and he certainly doesn’t have any regrets.
“If the opportunity was right for me to go back full-time again I’d snap your hand off, but it’s not something I’m hanging all my hopes on,” said Byrne, who’s got his UEFA B coaching licence.
“If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, I’ve come to terms with that. I’m playing semi-pro and I’m happy with that.
“I’ve found a nice balance between football and work – I see football as a release now.”
He adds: “If I can look back and say I’ve had a good career, whether it’s professional or non-league, I’ll be happy. I’ve won things and played a lot of games.
“And if I can add going to the third round of the FA Cup to that, that would be another achievement ticked off.”