Paul Byrne On Representing Celtic, Developing At Arsenal And Working Under Liam Brady

Paul Byrne On Representing Celtic, Developing At Arsenal And Working Under Liam Brady

An interview with Paul Byrne, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your professional career at Oxford United in the late 1980s. How do you reflect on your time there?

“I moved to Oxford from Ireland at the age of 13 when I became an apprentice. Back then, youth players would do jobs such as cleaning the stands or the dressing rooms and that gave me a good grounding.

“My big breakthrough at Oxford came when I made my first team debut against Middlesbrough at 16 years of age.

“After that, I played a run of games between the ages of 16 and 19 before Brian Horton came in as manager. That changed things for me as we did not get on because he stopped playing me and even as a young player, I believed that I was good enough to play so I asked for my contract to be cancelled.

“That happened and I ended up training with Arsenal reserve team which led to Arsenal signing me to a contract after a few weeks of training.”

What was it like training at Arsenal alongside the established first-team players in the early 90s?

“It was fantastic for my development because I was competing against top-class footballers and working with them every day.

“I trained alongside the likes of Paul Merson and Ray Parlour who had amazing careers in football.

“Looking back, it stood me in good stead being at Arsenal for a year of my career even if I did not make it to the first team. George Graham told me a few years after I had left that he regretted letting me move on because he signed Jimmy Carter instead and that was a move that did not work out for George or Arsenal.”

You returned home to Ireland post-Arsenal to play for Bangor in the Irish League. You scored the winning goal in the Irish Cup final to see the club defeat Ards. Your form at the club led to Liam Brady signing you for Celtic in 1993. What was that period of time like for you?

“My time at Bangor was great because I was an established first-team player at Oxford and I had developed from my time at Arsenal.

“That enabled me to stand out when I played in the Irish League and win four Player of the Year awards during my time with the club. It is something that has never been done before and probably won’t be matched.

“To top it off, I was presented those trophies by George Best, Gordon Banks and Pat Jennings. It was the stuff of dreams.

“I was actually about to sign for Manchester City before Liam Brady and Celtic came in for me. Liam knew about me from being at Arsenal and as soon as Celtic were interested then there was only one club for me.”

What was it like for you to join Celtic and make your mark in the first team at Celtic Park?

“Liam Brady believed in me from day one when I arrived at Celtic, and I actually lived with him for my first six months in Scotland before I moved to my own place in Blantyre close to one of my teammates in Rudi Vata.

“Living with Liam helped get me in the right frame of mind and develop good habits by ensuring that I was not going out regularly and my sole focus was football.

“I have to also single out Frank Connor as having a big impact on me at Celtic. He was coach of the reserves and I initially worked with him when I arrived and played in games alongside players who were coming through at that time such as Simon Donnelly and with established first-team players such as Charlie Nicholas and Frank McAvennie.

“From there, I was able to break into the first team and have some fantastic personal moments especially scoring a couple of goals against Rangers.

“I played in eight derbies and scored two goals and that certainly got fans on my side.

“Tommy Burns then became manager and I enjoyed working with him. He referred to me as a big game player which meant a lot coming from a man of his standing in football, but he could not guarantee regular games going forward which is why I left Celtic in the end.

“I had two years left on my deal at Celtic and I could have stayed and picked up money for not playing often but I wanted to play football and the Celtic supporters deserve better than to have players at the club who are happy to sit around.

“Playing at Celtic was the best time of my life, and I will never forget my time representing the club. The club was in the process of being taken over during my time at the club and I was delighted to see the club return to where they deserved to be after I had left.”

You moved to Southend United and worked under Ronnie Whelan after departing Celtic. What was he like to work with?

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with Ronnie and I started very well at Southend when I went there.

“There was a lot of interest from other clubs about signing me after a short period of time such as Birmingham City where Barry Fry was manager.

“However, nothing materialised because the owner of the club got a bit too greedy and would not sell me even though Birmingham had offered just under £1 million for me.

“Unfortunately, when you leave a club like Celtic, it is hard to return to that level and when those bids were turned down for me, the opportunity to move up again was gone.

“I stayed at Southend and, we were relegated during my second season at the club which was a blow for the club and for me as a player.”

You returned home to Ireland after leaving Southend and won silverware with Glenavon, Bohemians in between a spell playing in the United States. How would you sum up the latter stages of your playing career?

“Being at clubs such as Celtic and Arsenal stood me in good stead throughout my career and helped me in the latter stages when I returned home.

“I signed for Glenavon as my old Bangor boss was their manager and we went on to win another Irish Cup which was a nice feeling.

“Following that, I captained Bohemians to a league and cup double under Roddy Collins and had spells playing and coaching out in Philadelphia, Texas and California.

“I enjoyed my career as a whole and I am now playing in various Celtic legends games which is always nice because Celtic is referred to as a family and it certainly is.

“The fans never forget you and they look after you and I have experienced that in the last few years by playing in those games.”

Finally, Paul, what is your opinion on the current Celtic team under Brendan Rodgers?

“I was delighted when Brendan Rodgers returned to the club in the summer of 2023 because he is a top manager.

“I have spoken to him a few times since he has returned, and he always tells me that he will never forget my goal against Rangers all those years ago which is nice.

“With him in charge, the club are in a good position to build on the success of Ange Postecoglou in recent years and I have no doubt that Brendan will bring silverware to Celtic Park throughout his time with the club going forward.”