The Big Interview: A strange, but successful, season for Kildare hurling captain Brian Byrne

Tommy Callaghan chats with Brian Byrne, Naas and Kildare hurler and footballer and captain of the Christy Ring winning teams of 2018 and 2020

Tommy Callaghan

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Tommy Callaghan

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editor@kildarepost.com

The Big Interview: A strange, but successful, season for Kildare hurling captain Brian Byrne

Brian Byrne raises the Christy Ring Cup. Picture: Sportsfile

Twenty-four hours after lifting the Christy Ring Cup in front of an empty Croke Park, last week, Kildare team captain Brian Byrne sat down with “a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit” to relive the game on his laptop.

“Nothing else to do” Brian told us, “no celebrations; so different from two years ago, but these are the times we live in unfortunately.”

And did he enjoy looking back on the game?

“I did indeed” he laughed, “especially when I knew the result.”

Naas man Brian, has just come through an incredible few years, both on the county and club scene, and indeed also playing Sigerson Cup. Naas hurlers winning the senior hurling championship in 2019; getting to the final this year (yet to be played) while he captained his county to Christy Ring success in 2018 and again last week.

Brian of course is also an integral part of the Naas senior football set-up; winning the Leinster Leader Cup in 2019 and while disappointed the way the club football scene panned out last season — and again this year —nevertheless a very busy man indeed.

Brian and his fellow team mate, club and county, Jack Sheridan, are first cousins, Brian's mam Pauline, is sister to Jack's dad Jim Sheridan; Jim's dad was of course none other than the great Jim ‘Noise’ Sheridan, while Brian's dad is Paul, his grand dad on that side is well-known Naas man, Charlie Byrne, popular local politician and barber who ran his business for many a year on the New Row in Naas. Brian has two siblings, the youngest is sister Amy while Shane is in the middle.

Back in the day Jim ‘Noise’ Sheridan was the man to band up a hurley regardless of what state it was in ; not sure if his handy work would pass health and safety standards these days, but he was a dab hand at getting a stick back into action.

I tell you one thing he would have been one proud gent last week, and on the double at that, with two grandsons in action in Croke Park.

Pictured at the Independent.ie Higher Education GAA Fresher Div 1 Football Championship 2015 at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise, with his brother Shane, mother Pauline, Liam Whelan and aunt Marie Kane

Brian Byrne attended Ballycane NS before moving on to St Corban's and then to UCD and from a young age was involved with Naas GAA playing both hurling and football.

“I started off down in Fishery Lane, before moving up to Fr Brennan Park; they were great times; I was very fortunate that all the way up along, most of my friends played football and hurling, all more or less on the same teams.

“My first football coach was Tommy Loughran while John Holmes was a huge figure on the hurling front.”

Brian played both minor and U21 football for Kildare, winning a Leinster minor medal in 2013 under manager Bryan Murphy and played in the Leinster U21 football final, losing out to Dublin three years later.

"After the U21s I had to make a decision where I was going and as soon as we lost the Leinster final to Dublin, Divo (Paul Divilly) rang me enquiring what my plans were and while I did not know what I was going to do at that stage Divo (Paul Divilly) put me in touch with Joe Quaid (Kildare hurling manager at the time) invited me in and I did for the next number of years."

The following year “Kildare football manager, Cian O'Neill, spoke to me about stepping away from the hurling and going back to the football but that year I had planned to go to America for the summer; so between the Christy Ring starting when it did, early in the year, I had, more or less, had my mind made up to go to The States with my college friends.

“Off I went to San Diego and ended up getting a bit of football and hurling over there and then when I came home Joe (Quaid) told me he was making me captain for the following so I stayed for that year.”

A hard decision to go with the hurling instead of football?

“It was and it took me a good few phone calls and a good few people to talk to before I eventually made up my mind; suppose when Joe first asked me to come in, it wasn't too bad I said I'd kick on sure it will keep me going for the year but when that year was over and Cian (O'Neill) started talking to me and then Joe was on to me, I had to sit down and think, and between certain things I wanted to do whether that be college or going away, it ended up staying with the hurlers.

“To be fair it was probably more so due to the way the fixtures fell; the Christy Ring so early in the year and finishing before the summer and that simply fell into my plans with college.”

I was lucky enough, added Brian , “I was still able to play football; I played Sigerson Cup for three years so I was playing at a high level; while also playing hurling with Kildare, and of course with Naas, but this year I'm working full time, while also studying, but it has been the first year I had no Sigerson or inter-county football for a number of years.”

About to sit his final accountancy exams come May next year, Brian works for PWC, so a busy, busy man.

Mention of Naas and Brian takes a second or two, to get his thoughts in train.

“It's strange; it's frustrating, very frustrating; I suppose the hurling side of things have picked up, though we had some strange years also, hovering around at the bottom end of the hurling championship, but there was a huge amount of underage work going on (hurling); travelling down to Kilkenny and winning there at underage level was a huge boost and then the seniors started winning league finals and making it to the senior championship finals, but again it took us a while to get over the line to get up the steps; took us longer than expected.”

Brian admitted that the hurlers playing in their first final for some time in 2016 were very inexperienced, “but then the next two years we were beaten again and it was not until the fourth year (2019) when we finally got over the line; the first time since having reached three finals back in 2000-02, winning just the one title.

Naas, of course have reached the final once again this year but that decider was postponed due to the coronavirus and is expected to be played early in 2021.

Brian admits that in many respects the football scene in Naas has been very similar.

“Very similar, in many respects, to the hurling really; there is a bit of a struggle going on at the moment; it is a bit weird; we won the senior league, the Leader Cup in 2019 and then we end up in the relegation battle.”

What do you think went wrong there. You won the league, a good league a good league final and then collapse, what happened?

“Ye, I fully agree, we collapsed; we played Castledermot in the championship they beat us; we seem to struggle against teams that set up a bit defensively; we never broke it down; never brought energy to it; well capable of playing the football and the football we want to play.

“We saw that again there this year; against Celbridge in the first half we played some fine football but it is just getting over the line; it is an attention thing we need to figure out ourselves; but in someway it is very similar to what happened in the hurling; not the success we expected but there has been great success at minor and U20 and while it takes a while to bring that success into the senior level but we all know GAA careers don't last too long and I hope we can improve over the next few years, championshipwise anyway and get to compete on the football front effectively and successfully.”

And how right Brian is when you consider that Naas last success at senior football was back in that great win of 1990 when they defeated Clane (with new Kildare manager at the time, Mick O'Dywer in attendance) but the real startling statistic is the fact that prior to that you have to go all the way back to 1932 for success at that level, for a town the size of Naas with just one club, shocking really.

However just to emphasise how strong hurling has grown in Naas, just take a look at the starting XV in last week's Christy Ring when no less than eight club players started with another two in the match day squad of 26.

Brian is hoping to have a few weeks off now and to take a bit of a rest, recharge the batteries, play a bit of golf when it is allowed again (he is a former Junior Captain at Craddockstown Golf Club) but he admits he will still do a bit of running, a bit of gym work.

“I like to think I am capable of looking after myself; get a bit of work done; when on a rest week I still like to get out on my own and do a bit; even in the lockdown if guys did nothing and then came back in they would be picking up injuries all over the place; the body needs to maintain a certain physicality to maintain your inter-county level of fitness.”

While the season has not just seen Kildare win the Christy Ring Cup, and gain promotion to Tier 2 for 2021 when they will compete in the Joe McDonagh Cup, Brian admits that failing to gain promotion out of Division 2B was a big, big set-back.

”Our no. 1 priority for 2021 is to get out of 2B, it is imperative; remember a lot of teams in the Joe McDonagh will have extra games in Division 2A — and very competitive games — so really we will be trying to catch-up right from the start come 2021.”

And how much of an influence has five time All-Ireland medal winning David Herity been to Kildare and what did he bring to the table compared to Joe Quaid?

“In my time with Joe (Quaid) we did not win a Christy Ring; it was always striving towards that but then when David came in we had already won a Christy Ring, it was probably in some lads heads that's great, sure we have won a Christy Ring so this should work out for us, but we learned very quickly from David that we could always get better; there was always room for improvement; the ruthlessness of how Kilkenny and Brian Coady pick their team was there to be seen immediately with David.

“In Kilkenny if some guy is better than you, well he will step in and replace you and David definitely brought that element to us also; he scrutinises absolutely everything and he just wants the best; he puts so much into it; he text me on Monday night, he had just watched back on the game and he had the stats, so even after winning the game, winning the Christy Ring, gaining promotion, he was still going back over the stats, getting the numbers; incredible.

“He has that mentality that no matter how good you are or how well you are going you can always get better, you can always improve.

“That is something that Kildare hurling can only benefit from and getting the consistency into it; no point in playing fantastic one day and poor the next day; the higher level you go up you have to be consistent; you have to get to a good level, a good pitch; and be consistent; you will go up some days and back a bit the next, but if your level is high your county will do well.”

Apart from hurling, football and golf Brian also keeps an eye on the horses.

“One of dad's best friends is Dessie Scahill; they would have played a lot of soccer together; Dessie would have coached dad, that's how they became great friends, but I love the racing, watch it big time; nothing beats the Punchestown Festival in Kildare, a fantastic week for the whole county, not just Naas; it's huge and there is a big love for it in this house and that's for sure.”

So overall a busy man is Brian Byrne and while he will be relaxing — in between studying for his upcoming final exams next year — for the coming few weeks, no doubt come 2021 he will be back in Hawkfield, back down at Naas GAA Headquarters and back in the various GAA grounds throughout the country, striving to bring more success to both club and county.

We wish him well.