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Forgotten Black Cats: Chris Byrne

Cast your mind back to August 1997 - Manchester City at home on a Friday night as we opened our glorious new stadium. Niall Quinn, Superkev, even Lee Clark are probably the names you remember on the team sheet, but who was on our left wing that night wearing number 11? Well, Chris Byrne of course!

Michael Steele/Getty Images

"We are keen to trace Mr Byrne as soon as possible as we believe he has been involved in a number of high value thefts."

I always like to start Forgotten Black Cats with a nice little quote, but quite frankly I couldn’t look past the above quote from Andy Murphy of Lancashire Police in 2013 which probably sums up Chris Byrne's football career.

Byrne was signed from Macclesfield Town in the summer of 1997 following Sunderland's relegation from their maiden season in the Premier League. With Peter Reid knowing he had to add fire power to a side that had struggled to find the net all season beforehand, he focused his recruitment on the offensive side of the team. Thus the new ground saw the arrival of a legend to be in Kevin Phillips with added goal from threat in the shape of record signing Lee Clark.

When Michael Gray was forced to drop back into left back position due to an injury sustained by Martin Scott in the season opener at Sheffield United, another attacking addition, Byrne, was given his chance to shine just in front of him as Steve Agnew occupied the right hand side. Running out 3-1 winners, the new boys got plenty of praise alongside fit again Niall Quinn for the manner of victory, overcoming City with two late goals. Byrne was lauded for his direct running and trickery, with many pundits claiming that Sunderland had unearthed a non-league gem.

At just 22 years old, it seemed to be the inevitable big move his former Manager at Macclesfield Gil Prescott had expected him to make when he said he was "the best talent out of non-league in the last 15 years". Despite Reid’s team struggling badly in the opening months of the season Byrne, alongside Phillips and Craddock, were seen as the bright lights that could pull Sunderland out of the doldrums. However, as fans turned on the team during a 4-0 defeat against Reading, dubbed "nightmare at Elm Park", Byrne was one of the players who lost his place, dropping to the bench as Allan Johnston was moved from the right hand side to the left. The new look side went onto a run of 5 games with defeat, winning games against Huddersfield and Stoke on the way, but mysteriously the young talent had also started to disappear from our bench.

By the time we hosted eventual champions Nottingham Forest, Byrne was sold to Division One rivals Stockport County, amongst rumours of homesickness. Rumours shortly after came to circulate that Mr Byrne wasn’t a little boy who simply missed his Mummy a little too much. As it would turn out, the club had decided to disperse with his services due to the fact he had been hiding a murder suspect in his hotel room, which was most likely being paid for by the club, although no charges were pressed.

The fascinating tale of Chris Byrne didn’t stop there though - despite playing 57 games and scoring in 11 of them for Stockport County, his personal problems did not go away as he was linked to the burglary of chemists in 1999. During his years at Stockport he also gained two career threatening knee injuries & despite recovering from them both he was released in 2001, where he finishing his career at Macclesfield in 2003 after failing to overcome niggling injury problems.

The years that followed his retirement were the most mental of them all though. His manager at Macclesfield Sammy McIlroy said "I think the game's where he wants to be. He loves playing. I hope he gets himself together, recovers and gets playing again. I don't know what he does outside the game, but the Chris Byrne I worked with loves to score goals. He needs to be involved in the game." But he never could pull himself away from his personal life. In 2006 he was arrested on suspicion of two burglaries at a plumbing merchants in the Burnley and Chorley area, as police appealed for his whereabouts in connection to them.

The last we heard of him was of course not for footballing reasons when he was put into intensive care three years ago after almost being killed as he was part of a gangland shooting in Manchester, shot in the kneecap and left to die in the street. The bullet hit his femoral artery - had it been a millimetre to the side it would have destroyed the artery, killing him within minutes. Typically, with everything Chris had been involved in though, police confirmed the shooting was one of "mistaken identity".


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