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INTERVIEW: Roker Report meets... Former Sunderland player and FA Cup hero John Byrne!

Joining Roker Report for a chat about his time as a Sunderland player - including the 1992 FA Cup run - is former Republic of Ireland international, John Byrne.

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City
FA Cup hero John Byrne
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

When I started university and got my grant - this was the days before Student Loans - the first thing I did was buy my season ticket for Roker Park. Not sure my parents approved, but it’s all about priorities! Standing on the Fulwell End, there were a few heroes at that time: Marco Gabbiadini, Kevin Ball, Gary Owers, Gordon Armstrong, Don Goodman...

But one guy rocked up sporting a blond mullet and carried us all the way to Wembley. A player who gave me memories I will treasure forever; a man I’ll never forget and one I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing for my first ‘Roker Report meets...’ piece: John Byrne.

John Byrne of Sunderland

RR: Welcome John, and thanks for taking the time to sit down with Roker Report.

JB: No problem, it’s a pleasure.

RR: You had a strong relationship with Denis Smith, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he brought you to Sunderland in 1991. How did that come about and how did Denis sell the club to you?

JB: Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? I’d played for QPR in the Eighties so I’d played at Roker Park and played against Sunderland at QPR, so I knew what it was like, to a certain extent, so Denis didn’t really have to sell it to me.

But it was a maybe bit of both - my relationship with Denis and Sunderland as a football club. I’d played with Denis at York City and he’d kick-started my career, really. I was languishing at York a little bit and they came and worked on us and it all clicked. I started to fulfill a bit of potential I had and it was all probably down to him and Viv Busby. Obviously there’d been a link between Sunderland and York City around that time, with the likes of Marco and Ricky Sbragia and John MacPhail, so there were a few lads who’d made the journey up there.

Denis Smith finally managed to sign John Byrne for Sunderland in 1991
Getty Images

RR: There was a rumour that Denis had wanted you when he first joined as manager - is there any truth in that?

JB: Yeah, Denis wanted to sign me when I was with Le Havre in France. I was there for two years. I’d had a good first season, but I broke my leg. I got back and I was doing really well out there, and I was still in the Ireland squad as well - I went to Euro 88 - and Denis tried to get me. Unfortunately Le Havre wouldn’t sell at the time. Denis had wanted me to come and play up front with Marco. Gatesy was getting on a little bit, but they’d had a great partnership. Denis wanted to try and get me and Marco together, but it never materialised that year.

RR: Obviously, you came to the club just as Marco left. Denis used the funds from Palace to buy Anton Rogan and yourself in the October and later added Don Goodman, in December.

JB: That’s right - the three musketeers! We were in the hotel together. Rogs had been a left back with Celtic and Don came in from West Brom. He’d been cup-tied playing for them, but d’you know, he was brilliant all the way through that, because, as player, he must have been gutted to miss out, but he never showed it. All he ever was was totally supportive of everybody; he was fantastic. And he was such a top player as well. I still see Rogy and Don, when he comes down to do the commentary and stuff.

John Byrne of Sunderland, David Burrows and Michael Thomas of Liverpool
Byrne during the cup final

RR: Clearly, ‘92 was all about the cup run, and there’s a lovely shot at the end of the Chelsea replay at Roker Park when Don comes on in his big coat and gives you a huge hug!

JB: Yeah, I watched it last night - it was so brilliant! It stirred up so many memories. You see little clips and stuff but I don’t normally watch it, but I sat and watched it all last night and it was absolutely fantastic.

RR: There were a lot of changes going on at the time. We’d just dropped back to the Second Division and Denis made changes to his coaching staff. It was a shock to fans at the time when Viv Busby was effectively replaced by Malcolm Crosby - was anything mentioned in the dressing room?

JB: No, not until it happened. It was a bit of a shock to everyone. It must have been a hard decision for him to make as they were such good mates. But, no, we didn’t know.

RR: Denis was then sacked in December. How big a blow was it, personally, to lose him as your manager?

JB: Oh, very much so. I have a tendency to do that - Alan Mullery was sacked when I went to QPR! I was good at getting managers sacked! But like I said, I played for him at York and he brought me to Sunderland. I wanted to do well for him, but, yeah it was a bit of a shock. Everyone was disappointed cos everyone liked him, and everyone like Buzza, you know, and there was a really good team spirit in there, but unfortunately these things happen in football.

And we didn’t really know what was going to happen with Crozza. Obviously, he was only given the role as caretaker, and that was only temporary, but then it snowballed, didn’t it?!

Chelsea v Sunderland - FA Cup Sixth Round - Stamford Bridge
Byrne equalises at Stamford Bridge to set up a replay at Roker Park
Photo by John Stillwell - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

RR: Absolutely! So with Don cup-tied and the changes in the manager’s office, did you feel a bit of a weight on your shoulders to carry the team?

JB: As a player you just want to go out and just do well for the team and you don’t feel personal weight. It’s hard enough just to concentrate on having a good game. That’s what you do as a professional - go out and give it your best and try to play the best you can. I was just the fortunate one ending up getting the goals, really. You know, you look at the players in that side: Dav was well capable, Tony Norman was brilliant, the boys at the back were fantastic, Bracewell was magnificent in midfield. Sometimes it focuses on me scoring in every round, but there was a lot more to it than that.

RR: We didn’t do so well in the league - we finished 18th that season. What was it about the cup games that were so successful compared to the league?

JB: You know, you still can’t put your finger on it. We were a decent team and we had some good players. There were some good young players, too: Brian Atkinson, Warren [Hawke], Rushie, you know. We under performed in the league, definitely. You can always make excuses and say maybe the cup run detracted from the league, but I don’t know.

The cup suited you, as you scored in every round as we made it to Wembley. Is there any particular goal that stands out for you?

JB: Probably Gordon Armstrong’s! He scored with three minutes to go. I remember them equalising and thinking we’ve gone a bit. You could see the energy going out of our game and thinking if this goes to extra time I can just see them getting stronger. We were definitely under the cosh before Wise equalised. Tony made some great saves, but if you ever want a goal to come at the right time, that was it. They didn’t have anyone on the post, which was quite unusual in those days. But it was meant to be!

Totally! I was with some good friends on the Fulwell and we must been carried about ten rows down when that went in! I was also on the Kop at Hillsborough when you scored the header against Norwich City. It looked like you thought you were offside?

JB: Yeah, even if you look at it now, there’s a suspicion!

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City
Byrne scores to send Sunderland to Wembley
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Nah, you were well on! Anyway, that got us to Wembley. What did Crosby say to you all before the final against Liverpool?

JB: Nothing, really. There wasn’t anything major, you know, just go out there, give it your best and enjoy it.

You’d been to a league cup final a few years before with QPR, I think I’m right in saying. Brace had been in a few cup finals too. I guess the younger lads looked to you to help them through such an occasion?

JB: Yeah, possibly. Brace had been in a few cup finals and had never won one, and I’d played at Wembley five times and never won a game! I’d come on as a sub against England when we got beat, and the play-off finals with Brighton, and the league cup final with QPR, and there was another game or so with Ireland.

I recall we started OK and you had an early chance….

JB: I should have scored! I know that, and I only think it about once every day now! The 13th minute, 20th second… I saw the time at the top of the screen when I eventually watched it back. But we played well first half. That run is something I’ll never forget and probably been the highlight of my career. As a kid you watch the FA Cup and I love all that.

Second half saw an early blitz from Liverpool, but I thought you all did the club proud. Was there something about getting the wrong medal at the end?

JB: Yeah, we went up for our medals, you know, trudging up to collect them and as we got to the first bend, you know, dejected and everything, someone said “I’ve got a winners medal!” and then someone else went “So have I!” So we all checked and then, it was like, come on quick! But there was someone in the tunnel making sure we gave them all back. So I got a winner’s medal but didn’t win the cup!

But, yeah, even though it’s Liverpool and you’re underdogs, you know, it’s still dejection to have lost. I often think if it’d been Portsmouth, cos the Portsmouth and Liverpool semi had gone to penalties…If we’d been playing Portsmouth that day that would’ve been great for football.

What was it like after the game, then, coming back to Sunderland?

JB: It was a great day and then, just coming back, it was just unbelievable. We’d been out and had a few beers after the game and on the coach going back up to Sunderland, so when we realised what was going on everyone was like “oh no!”. There were television cameras and everyone was trying to avoid being interviewed, but it was brilliant; it was fantastic. What a great welcome home. We were very privileged.

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City
Sunderland were always backed with tremendous support
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

You left the club shortly after - early into the next season. I remember being very surprised that we’d lost Marco the previous year and yourself, our cup hero, about 12 months later. How did that come about?

JB: My missus was struggling to settle down up there, but I should have stayed shouldn’t I? But I didn’t start the season very well and it sort of petered out. Mick McCarthy came in for me at Millwall and I’d played with Mick at Ireland. But I got to Millwall and thought ‘what have I done? Why am I not running out at Roker Park?’ But then maybe sometimes things happen for a reason. I ended up at Brighton, I went to Uni, got a degree in Podiatry and ended up working in the NHS; I’ve got a family now, so maybe sometimes things just happen.

And then, of course, Denis signed you again, this time for Oxford?

JB: Yeah, Crozza was there too as his assistant manager so everyone was back together. Rogy went there and Rushie. I enjoyed it at Oxford. We had a good side there. Good mix of older and younger players, so I enjoyed it. Especially with Denis and Malcolm.

Finally, any thoughts on the current side?

JB: Yeah, you’ve just signed Lua Lua. On his day, he’s fantastic. He’s got great ability. For Brighton he was a good player to bring on for the last twenty minutes or so; he’s a good impact player. Hopefully he’ll do well. Chris Coleman seems to be getting something out of them. He’s got a bit about him. It’d be unthinkable to consider Sunderland going down. Mind, you keep letting me down in my accumulators! Always go with my heart, you know!

Thanks for chatting to me today. It’s been an absolute pleasure! And for all you did in that run and for all that it meant to us as fans, thank you.