- 25 Mar 04
A spell in jail and another working in the music biz helped push Ollie Byrne in the direction of running a football club. The colourful Shelbourne chairman offers some typically forthright views on Dunphy, Racism, the FAI and the National Stadium as the new domestic season gets under way.
He’s continually dismissive of football here. Not because he goes to places like Tolka Park but because he’s still sour that when himself and Johnny Giles came back from England in the ’70s and tried to develop the League of Ireland through Shamrock Rovers, it all went wrong on them. He’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since.”
Ollie Byrne is being characteristically forthright about Eamonn Dunphy and his abortive 1998 attempt to bring Wimbledon – and top-flight English football – to Dublin.
Dead issue or not, the Shelbourne chairman still regards the plan as an insult to not just his club, but the other progressive-minded members of the Eircom League who’ve invested time and money in improving the standard of the domestic game.
“If there’s to be a Dublin club in a future European Super League, it will come from within and benefit the existing league structure here,” Byrne insists. “If Sam Hamaan and Joe Kinnear had come to us with a plan that worked in parallel with the Eircom League we’d have listened, but they showed total disregard for the people who’ve kept the professional game here alive. I’m not going to let somebody come in from England or Scotland and ride roughshod over what we’ve been doing as a league.”
Asked whether he can one day see Shelbourne competing on an equal footing with Real Madrid, Byrne says: “Waterford played Real Madrid, Shamrock Rovers played Manchester United, we’ve taken on Rangers and Auxerres recently in European competition and not made fools of ourselves. It’d require time and investment, but if FIFA give it the green light, the finance and venue to play games like that on a week-in, week-out basis wouldn’t be a problem. The leap, huge as it is, could be made.”
You wouldn’t guess it from his present pinstriped demeanour, but back in the late ’60s and early ’70s Byrne was a pioneering force in Irish rock ‘n’ roll. As well as being one of the first people to bring overseas acts in – “Shirt? I lost my entire wardrobe on Joe Cocker!’ – he was manager of Skid Row and gave Phil Lynott some of his first gigs with The Black Eagles.
“The thing I always remember about Philo is the scrum of girls who’d be waiting for him after the show. The ladies loved him! Later on, we did one of the first outdoor gigs in Milltown with Thin Lizzy.
“Somebody else I knew before they hit the big time was the U2 manager, Paul McGuinness. I remember him putting Allies on the bill for me when he had Dave Clarke and Georgie Fame in the RDS.”
While admitting that “I haven’t a clue what’s happening in the rock ‘n’ roll world these days”, Byrne is keen to stage gigs in Shels’ 12,000-capacity Tolka Park ground.
“When we moved into Tolka I gave a verbal undertaking that we wouldn’t do music, but things have changed substantially since then and we’re now entitled to do it under new planning regulations. We certainly comply in terms of safety and that sort of thing. I’d prefer it if a third party came in and rented rather than us doing it ourselves.”
Another thing about Ollie Byrne that you probably wouldn’t glean from looking at him now is that he was sent to Mountjoy in 1983 for his part in a raid on the Carroll’s cigarette factory in Dublin. How much of a life-changing experience was prison?
“I had time – six months of it – to reflect,” he resumes. “It’s while in Mountjoy that I devised the plan for the restructuring and rejuvenation of Shelbourne Football Club. As a result of being in there, I gave up gargle and cigarettes and decided that I’d never put myself in that position again. Once I accepted that I’d made a bad error and deserved to be where I was, the paranoia and guilt eased a bit and I was able to think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
He must have been peed off, though, that they were collared at a roadblock set up not to catch them but Shergar who’d been horsenapped the same day by the IRA.
“It wasn’t the best timing, no,” he says dryly. “You just have to say ‘fuck it’, though, and get on with life.”
How after spending six months in The ’Joy did he get people to take him seriously again?
“They still don’t take me seriously and that’s 20 years down the road! No, I made sure that everybody I was dealing with heard the story from me first. That way when somebody said to them, ‘Do you know what yer’ man did?’ they’d go, ‘Yes, he’s already told us.’”
Credibility reestablished, Ollie Byrne set about turning Shelbourne into what is arguably the most dynamic force in Irish league football. Achievements that he’s justifiably proud of include the transformation of Tolka into an all-seater stadium that’s staged senior Ireland internationals; most of the Shels squad going full-time; and the striking of a deal with Manchester United which has resulted in Old Trafford coaching staff working with their 19 underage teams.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though, with the fear of sectarian violence forcing them to switch a home UEFA Cup tie against Rangers to England and increasing concerns about racism creeping into the Irish game. Is the latter something he’s encountered at Tolka?
“Look, I don’t think there’s racism in the true sense of the word,” he proffers. “In football and sport in general, everybody tries to tease the opposition and the opposition supporters. I’d hear players saying as a wind-up, ‘You black bastard’ or whatever. It’s not correct and it’s not right, but I don’t think it’s racism as such. If I heard a player being totally racist, though, I would discipline him.”
How did Shelbourne’s highest-profile black player of recent years, Mark Rutherford, fare when he was at the club?
“When Mark joined us, the lads used to say, ‘Jayz Mark, go back into the shower and wash yourself.’ It wasn’t meant in an offensive way though. A lot of people misinterpret things like that. There’s racism and there’s people doing things in the heat of the moment that are provocative.”
Does Ollie Byrne accept, as David James said a few years ago in hotpress, that there’s a distinction between being called a “bastard” and a “black bastard”?
“Racist to me is where somebody has a total objection to somebody because of their colour, creed or whatever,” he maintains. “There’s a certain amount of banter that’s acceptable.”
Shels’ 1-0 opening day of the season win against Shamrock Rovers was pleasing not just for the result, but the fact that the game actually took place. Up until the middle of last month there were genuine concerns that UEFA wouldn’t allow the 2004/05 Eircom League to kick off because only a handful of grounds met with their stringent new licensing requirements. Worst effected were Limerick FC who were warned by the governing body that they could be kicked out of the professional game completely if they don’t upgrade their facilities.
“If John Magnier’s the huge sports fan he claims he is, why doesn’t he stop having that silly row with Alex Ferguson and give Limerick, a team from his own county that’s in dire straits, some money?” Byrne ponders. “Limerick’s problem is that the man at helm there, Father Joe Young, is running the club for the right reasons but in the wrong way. No one’s saying that he hasn’t put his heart and soul in it or done a tremendous job for the youth of Limerick, but he’s not a businessman.”
Ollie Byrne pulls few punches when it comes to criticising “the amateurism that’s existed not only at club level but within the FAI.” The solution, he maintains, is simple.
“The Eircom League must be merged totally within the FAI. Instead of the petty squabbling and personal fiefdoms you have now, there’ll be one person at Chief Executive level looking after the interests of football in Ireland. There’s no shadow of a doubt that the FAI was and still is in a state of chaos. The reason being that it’s made up of 50 or 60 different individuals and political factions fighting their own corner. That sort of bad business practice is damaging the game and has to stop.”
Byrne points to the Roy Keane affair as a prime example of FAI ineptitude.
“Instead of providing the dynamic leadership that was needed, the FAI stood by and watched the argument between Mick and Roy escalate out of all proportions. There was no senior member of the FAI present in Saipan which, given that it was a national crisis, left a lot to be desired. What also leaves a lot leaves a lot to be desired is the money that through mismanagement has been wasted on paying off employees. Unfortunately, that looks set to continue for another year or two yet.”
Of course the biggest issue occupying Irish football in recent years has been the provision of a national stadium.
Ollie Byrne says he respects the right of the GAA to use Croke Park as they wish, and thinks the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road is probably the best way forward.
“In the circumstances, I think it’s a workable compromise and one that now allows us to focus on the other issues facing Irish football,” is the Ollie Byrne verdict. “More important than who owns the national stadium is the fact that we have one.”
[photos: Cathal Dawson]
Shelbourne play Drogheda United at Tolka Park on Friday April 2