Louth GAA

PART TWO | Louth star Casey Byrne blogs about the highs and lows of his AFL career, and coming home

Louth GAA

Ciarán 'Casey' Byrne, with Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Ciarán 'Casey' Byrne, with Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

PART TWO | Louth star Casey Byrne blogs about the highs and lows of his AFL career, and coming home

I want to prove myself again, to make people recognise me as the footballer I was before embarking on the AFL ladder. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE

Things couldn’t have been going any better. I had a very strong and consistent pre-season routine and I felt destined for a big year. There were always one or two players that trained at a different level and I would do my best to match up with them for the conditioning circuits, to push myself that bit more. Kade Simpson and Patrick Cripps are ones who spring to mind. 

That year, our conditioning coach, Joel Hocking, had a horrible run that we completed regularly. It was 15 x 300 metre sprints on the minute. So if you did the run in 40 seconds you would have 20 to rest.  At my peak I loved these and was one of the best at the club at them. Long distance runs, however, weren’t my game. 

With each passing week I was becoming increasingly confident, gathering more and more possessions and enjoying the tackling side of the game. My confidence was sky-high. The joy of training every day, preparing for big games every weekend, it was exhilarating. 

Some fixtures entailed flying by plane a day or two beforehand. It was crazy at times. Flying for four hours and then having to adapt to a different timezone. But I was getting to see all of Australia; Perth, Gold Coast, Adelaide…

I was enjoying a consistent run of 12 senior AFL games that season - my longest stint in the side - developing into an important rebound defender for Carlton, and really starting to make a name for myself within the league. 

This took me up to a big game against arch-rivals Collingwood, in front of another packed house of 80,000. I was having a great game until the last quarter when I got seriously injured. Scans confirmed the day after that I had torn my right ACL, MCL and PCL. I was suddenly back in the darkest of places. 

Try to imagine how that felt? My parents were up in the early morning watching the game back in Ireland. I was on some strong medication to help with the pain and I briefly remember calling them to tell them I was okay, but I’d hurt my knee badly. I was pretty much bed-bound with a brace for four weeks. 

For the dream of playing in front of big crowds week-in, week-out to be taken away from you, it really hurt and left a deep mental incision. I didn’t see a way back into the system from there and strongly contemplated giving up. 

But it didn’t stop me. After some strong conversations, I got back on the horse. More long and lonely days of rehab, which was tough. I actually got used to being on my own, which was weird because it’s a team sport. It wasn’t for me at that point, though. I was fighting against myself to get back to the big time. 

The injury really affected my confidence, as a person and as a player. I just felt like it was always me and that it was never going to be any different. To this day I am still working hard to become that same athlete who was fit, strong and confident pre the horrible injuries. 

Your self-belief can be affected in other ways too. Given your profile and privilege, you’re open to a lot of scrutiny from fans and the public. The Aussies are extremely passionate about their sport, particularly the Melbourne public; AFL is their religion. 

Personally, I’m my harshest critic, but fans are fickle. One week you’re their favourite, the next week they’re telling you to hop on the next flight home. E-supporters, those who voice their views online, either make you out to be the greatest or they’re the first to run you down. It’s the nature of professional sport, I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong, when things are going well, the fans and media would really get behind you and boost you sky-high. But, typically, there’s the flipside and I’ll leave what that feels like open to your interpretation; I was already suffering, trying to fight my way back from another setback.

SHOULDERS TO LEAN ON

In the down times, as a kid Down Under, having an Irish network of people, to either bounce things off or lean on, was so important and you only gradually realise that. 

When I moved out first I was living with a host family. Kerryn, my Aussie mother, was an avid Carlton supporter and she took care of Irish players who played for the Blues over the years, including Cork legend Setanta Ó hAilpín. She was just amazing; she did basically everything for me, an 18-year-old Louth lad who she barely knew at first. 

I moved in with a few mates after a while, Cameron Giles, a recruit from Adelaide, and my buddy, Patrick Cripps. Cameron was one of the best, but he had a tough career and a foot injury ended it for him. The thrust nature of the sport meant players were coming and going, and so I lived with quite a few lads over my course. Darcy Lang and Jack Cripps - two absolute legends - moved in with us at one stage.

Some of the AFL Irish crew on St. Patrick's Day 2016.

Jack was Patrick’s cousin and his family, from Perth, became like my Aussie family; treating me as one of their own; accepting me, which is something I’ll be eternally grateful for. 

The other Irish lads around the AFL were a great bunch and I’m honoured to call them my mates. Ray Connellan (Westmeath), Conor Nash (Meath), Conor Glass (Derry), Ciarán Sheehan (Cork), Mark O’Connor (Kerry), Conor McKenna (Tyrone), Darragh Joyce (Kilkenny) and Cillian McDaid (Galway), between us, we set-up a WhatsApp group. I suppose I should probably leave it considering I’m home!

We caught up very often while out there. By God, I could tell you some stories, but I doubt they’d make the published cut! 

I also had my Australian cousins out in the country, in a city called ‘Casey’, would you believe? Any time I wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of Melbourne, I visited them, especially on Sundays where I got lovely home-cooked meals. I miss them a lot, my cousins that is!

I often found myself telling the Aussie lads how good home was and trying to explain to them how the GAA works. Still, though, they could never understand why we loved home so much. So it was pretty special to get some of my good mates over to Ireland on a few occasions, to show them what I was missing out on. 

Patrick, Caleb Marchbank, Andrew Galluci, Michael Jameson and Liam Jones are just a few who tasted life in Louth Village and a drink in Eamo’s. I hope they’ll visit again some time. 

Casey in AFL action.

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS

After a long and arduous 12 months of rehab, I returned to full training with the team. To finally be on the same training schedule as the lads was something of a relief. The simplest of things began to mean an awful lot, like getting time at lunch to eat with your mates. My mood slowly started to swing as I was getting closer to my return. 

In the round 17 trip to the Gold Coast, I made my AFL comeback, after almost a year and a half, and it was pretty emotional because of what I had been through to get to that stage. Only certain people will understand. And, apart from missing one game with a quad strain, I finished the season in the senior team.

Towards the end of the year, I was really counting down the days to coming home, which was the first time I started to have ‘those’ feelings. After a nice few months back in Louth Village, I prepared for what was to be my sixth and final season as a professional AFL player. 

Following a really strong and hard pre-season, I was preparing for game one against Richmond Tigers, which drew a huge crowd. It was the first time I was available for selection for the opening round in my career, because, in previous years, I was injured. Apart from my debut it was one of the greatest moments of my AFL career. Representing my club, county, country and family in front of 90,000 people is a moment I’ll never forget.

Indeed, the entire 2017/’18 campaign was ‘the comeback year’ from the knee injury. I played some really good football along the way, but, again, had hamstring and quad niggles, which restricted me to only seven or so senior games. 

Throughout the year I was having second thoughts about where my future lay. I remember breaking down in tears one day with Patrick, who was like a brother to me. I had a conversation with him and a few others at the club, to tell them that my drive and passion for AFL was waning. 

With a year still to go on my contract, and a bright future ahead of me provided injury refrained from striking, I decided that the game wasn’t for me any longer. It was an extremely tough decision to make considering the financial loss and life I was going to be leaving behind. I returned home that off-season still in a way thinking of returning to Australia, to see out my contract, but what was to happen next could never have been predicted and, in a way, sums up my luck to date.

In 2018, my club, St. Mochta’s, reached the intermediate championship final, their first at that grade since 1981. There was much deliberation with Carlton over whether I was allowed to play, but it wasn’t really a decision either, I was never going to sit it out. 

The Mochta’s is a club that means so much to me and to pull on that blue and yellow jersey again was the best feeling; one that I’d missed so, so much. But becoming intermediate champions for the first time in 37 years, following in the footsteps of my father and uncles, was such a bittersweet feeling as, yet again, the injury cloud rained over me. 

I dislocated my right ankle in what was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. I remember saying to my parents as they looked over me: “Why always me? Not again”.  I was rushed straight to Drogheda Hospital for emergency surgery and after the operation I spent three days in recovery, officially announcing my retirement from Carlton via my social media platforms. 

As you can imagine, my emotions were all over the place. Making a massive decision to step away from AFL and winning in Castlebellingham, but missing out on all the celebrations with my friends, the people who I’ve grown up with, and knowing that I had another long year of rehab ahead of me. I was going to be missing out on what I’d returned for, doing what made me happy, playing GAA.

It wasn’t how I imagined my transition back to life at home. Another long road to recovery... And the feeling of watching Louth and club games, where I felt I should have been playing, was horrible. 

The injury in the 2018 intermediate championship final. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

But it drove me more than ever to work hard and to get back playing the sport I loved most. Some people might ask why I keep going back for more after all the injuries? But, I suppose, it’s just become so natural, the fighting back. 

Now 25, I still have a decent few years of football ahead of me with club and county. The desire to make those the best years is greater than the one I had Down Under. The time of getting paid to play is well over, but the whole idea of being an athlete isn’t. That frame of mind of a professional will stick with me forever. 

I was lucky enough to be offered a job with DEFY Sports Apparel, an exciting custom teamwear brand in Dundalk which is growing fairly rapidly. This is really my first job, my first opening in ‘real life’, having been a pro for so long, and it’s arguably been the most difficult adjustment. 

It takes some altering to get used to the 9-5 routine before training most nights; an eye-opener to what ‘amateurs’ go through to play the game they love. Football consumed most if not all of my thoughts for the guts of six years. Now I have to find a healthy balance between my working Life, the GAA and living in general. It’s been a tough transition and to this day I am still trying to properly find my feet on Irish soil, trying to fit back into the fold. 

The professional lifestyle was stressful, don’t get me wrong, but we had our downtime during the days, a spell where we could let off steam and have a bit of craic. You don’t seem to grow old in a football environment, whereas a ‘normal’ job can be the opposite and involves a much more structured and, dare I say it, serious way of living. 

His first game back for Louth, against Westmeath in the O'Byrne Cup. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

Everybody has a daily approach that they take for granted, in every walk of life. Just imagine having to alter that by 180 degrees, to completely the opposite of what you’re used to. You’re defying instinct almost. I was programmed to get up at a certain time, to train, recover, rest and repeat. Now it’s about alarm clocks, heavy traffic and a long day even before training. Plus, Darver isn’t exactly the same temperature as Oz! Every day is a learning day, ultimately. Not that I’m complaining, or ever do!

It’s like I’m starting my GAA career all over. I’m itching for it to get going. I want to prove myself again, to make people recognise me as the footballer I was before embarking on the AFL ladder. And to get the chance to play alongside my brother, Declan. We’ve never really got that opportunity and my first game back in the red jersey after six years away, against Westmeath in this year’s O'Byrne Cup, was the only time we've ever been on the same Louth team. He’s getting on a bit so we mightn’t have long to pursue that dream! But we’ll give it a go. 

In a weird kind of way, it’s like I am learning the game for a second time. If you ask boys like Ray Connellan (Westmeath), Tommy Walsh (Kerry) and Michael Quinn (Longford), they will all say the same. The expectation of a once professional footballer to come back and dominate the GAA is real. I just wish it was that easy. But it’s another challenge that awaits me, and one that excites me the most. 

Until then...