Plain and simple, Conan Byrne is a League of Ireland legend.
Since bursting onto the scene at UCD in 2005, the Swords native has lit up the league, initially as a striker before shifting to the right wing and lifting the FAI Cup with Sporting Fingal.
After a two year spell at Shelbourne, where they won promotion from the First Division, he proceeded to follow former Fingal boss Liam Buckley to Inchicore and picked up every title in the game
That’s before mentioning his famous goal from his own half and St Pat’s Player of the Year in 2017.
But how did this all happen for the player who, in his own words, “had fallen out of love with football after leaving Home Farm”?
Speaking to extratime.ie about his own education journey, Byrne explained how, despite strong interest from English clubs including Millwall when in Fifth Year of secondary school, he wanted to finish his Leaving Certificate.
“I knew I wasn’t good enough to make it over the water,” he said modestly before explaining the importance his parents would have played on finishing his education.
After completing his Leaving Certificate, he enrolled on the Sports Management course at UCD in 2005 – where another interviewee on this series, Brian Gartland, was a classmate – before earning a scholarship in his second year.
Despite suffering a broken nose prior to the first stage, the former River Valley Rangers player was one of four scholarship recipients, a number which also included Shamrock Rovers midfielder Ronan Finn.
Following the successful completion of his degree, he signed for Liam Buckley at Sporting Fingal where he combined the dual roles of player and Marketing Executive and was charged with getting sponsors on board.
His employment in this role came directly as a result of a conversation with Buckley as to what he had studied while at Belfield. “It was nice to get the experience, but my role was first and foremost on the pitch.”
After a year, the club trained on a full time basis and Byrne’s role changed to that of Community Development Officer where he was tasked with building the club’s brand in the Fingal area.
It was during this time that his teenage ambitions of becoming a primary school teacher began to resurface.
“In all the work in schools and with children I knew I wanted to become a teacher.”
Following the demise of the north Dublin-based club in 2011, Byrne was forced to seek new employment both on and off the pitch and he combined working in the retail trade – continuing a role he had held on a part time basis while at UCD – alongside a very successful period at Shelbourne, where he won promotion from the First Division before remaining safely clear of relegation in the Premier Division the following year.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances (“I was devastated, after putting in so much work [at Fingal] I was disheartened”) that saw Byrne arrive at the Tolka Road club, the winger remains very grateful to boss Alan Matthews for signing him and allowing him to fulfil a childhood ambition by playing at the ground he had attended as a child alongside his father.
However, once it became clear that his old manager, Buckley, required his services at St Patrick’s Athletic, Byrne signed for the Super Saints.
“As soon as Liam called, I was always going to sign. Myself and Liam have a great relationship. He plays me every week!”, quipped the attacker before explaining how the club have been very flexible to him – both when completing his postgraduate diploma and now when teaching – and others in college by accommodating training sessions if they clash with lectures or assignment submissions.
Byrne is very honest when talking about his situation: “I didn’t think I’d be able to do what I’m doing but with Ian Bermingham and Christy Fagan at college and the [players involved in the] Maynooth link, I can’t see it ending soon. It wasn’t easy (studying) at times but when you’re focused you’ll get it done.”
He cites both Dundalk’s Seán Hoare and Jamie McGrath, as well as Peterborough United’s Conor O’Malley, as examples of players who placed importance on their degree while developing their football career at St Patrick’s Athletic, while also making reference to Fuad Sule, who intends to complete his degree following his move to Barnet from Bohemians.
When asked if he’d any words of wisdom for younger players in the league, he responded with the following sage words: “My advice would be to finish your degree, you’ve still got your football career ahead of you. Then when you retire you’ve a much longer career and it’s easier with a degree.”
Wise words from the man who wanted to be a teacher in his teens, didn’t get the required points yet worked hard and had a very successful League of Ireland career which he may not have achieved by taking a more direct route.
“There are teammates who are envious of the fact that I’ve a good career outside the game and I know that some of the players who come home from England could have done with the information [as to the importance of education] as ultimately [a pro career in England] usually ends in heartbreak.
“There are so many positives in staying in Ireland and getting a good education, especially when only 3% of those who go to England make an appearance for the first team.”