Six leagues, five FAI Cups, one Shels

 

Ollie ByrneOllie Byrne, who has died aged 63, devoted his working life to his beloved football club, Shelbourne. In an era when clubs have increasingly come to be run like public companies and the Irish game has embraced many aspects of the corporate world's approach to public relations, Byrne was regarded by some as an anachronism during the last few years of his reign at Tolka Park.

His death has deprived football of one of its most energetic and enduring characters and Shelbourne of the man who was its driving force for more than two decades.

Byrne was born in the Mount Merrion area of Dublin and educated at Synge Street before going to on to study law for a time at UCD. Football was in his blood from day one, however, and from the age five when one his brothers brought him to see Shelbourne play at Milltown, he was besotted with the club.

The youngest son of the late Andrew and May Byrne, his father had been the club's chairman and largest shareholder when Ollie was a child. It would be some time, though, before he would fully immerse himself in the family tradition.

His initial involvement in football took the form of helping his brother form Rathdown Rovers and playing for UCD, but asthma brought an early end to his own career such as it was. He was, in any case, to become too preoccupied by the music business for a while to remain particularly active in football. During an eventful career as a concert promoter, band manager and club proprietor that spanned the late 1960s and 1970s - he ran the Countdown club on Dublin's Mary Street for a decade - he became a major figure in the industry here.

He was close to many of Ireland's rising stars of the period, most notably Phil Lynott, and came to spend time with some major international artists, including Stevie Wonder.

As he would later do with Shelbourne, he tended to allow his heart to rule his head and ultimately ended up getting out of the business in the wake of his unsuccessful promotion of a British, Irish and European tour by the English singer Joe Cocker.

"I loved the craic of it more than anything," he later observed. "I never learned to see it as a business."

Some difficult times followed and in 1983 he was sentenced to six months in prison for possession of a large number of stolen cigarettes.

He described his spell in Mountjoy as his "lowest ebb", with the death of Lynott while he was incarcerated compounding his misery.

He had joined the board of Shelbourne in 1976 and spent some of his time in jail devising a way of rescuing the club which had fallen into what many believed to be irreversible decline.

In the ensuing years he devoted a huge amount of time and energy to reversing the club's fortunes, a task in which he was aided immeasurably by the late Tony Donnelly who ran a highly successful fruit and vegetable wholesale business.

Byrne was subsequently to describe the day he met the man destined to become Shelbourne's major financial benefactor as "the greatest of my life". With Donnelly's backing, Tolka Park was purchased from Home Farm football club and Shelbourne embarked on a sustained period of growth. Over the years that followed the club won six league titles, five FAI Cups and one League Cup becoming, along the way, the country's most successful club of last 20 years.

Struck by the limited public appeal of the league here, however, and incapable of substantially broadening Shelbourne's regular support base around Drumcondra, Byrne eventually decided that the way forward for the club was to relocate and to tap into the enormous revenues available to clubs involved in the higher levels of European competition.

He therefore embarked on a renewed round of spending which, with the Donnelly family no longer footing the bills, was funded by the sale of Tolka for redevelopment for a substantial figure, portions of which were to be drawn down annually until the club moved to a new, purpose-built home on Dublin's northside and achieved the breakthrough he hoped for.

The promise of land on which the plan was based was, however, withdrawn after a change of heart by local elected representatives, while the team, for all its domestic success, never managed to make it to the group stages of the Champions League, their best performance coming in 2004 when they lost in the final qualifying round to Deportivo La Coruna of Spain.

Undeterred, Byrne continued to work tirelessly on securing a brighter future for the club until he became ill at the start of this year. His preoccupation with serving Shelbourne's best interests often made him unpopular with administrators at other clubs and within the football establishment, but he was widely respected within the game, not least as a formidable opponent in the many disputes he became embroiled in.

He was often frank about his shortcomings and conceded that the aggressive manner that more than once landed him in hot water had generated a good deal of animosity over the years.

But, he insisted, he had never intentionally set out to hurt anybody and the generosity he was known for on a personal level ensured that he was viewed with enormous fondness by the players, staff and supporters of his own club.

Byrne died in the early hours of last Sunday morning at Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross. He was predeceased by his brother Bernard, who died at the age of 16 in 1949. He is survived by his brothers and sisters: Carmel, Andrew, Maire Bernadette, Joe and Ciarán.

Oliver (Ollie) Byrne: born July 26th 1944; died August 27th 2007