We’d waited four years for John Byrne to arrive at Roker Park, and barely 12 months after he’d worn the red and white stripes for the first time, he looked as if he was off.
Denis Smith, his former gaffer at York City, had tried to sign him pretty much every pre-season he was at Sunderland. The closest it had got was in the summer of 1990, when Byrne was away with the Ireland squad for the Italia 90 World Cup, but the move fell through at the last minute, and he ended up at Brighton.
He’d been close to joining from QPR, but after Marco Gabbiadini’s departure to Palace, Smith finally landed his man at the fourth, fifth or maybe even sixth attempt.
As luck would have it, Smith barely lasted three months after signing his former charge, and Byrne – wearing Gabbiadini’s number 10 shirt – quickly became a hero on the unlikely road to Wembley, during which we showed that, on our day, we could go toe-to-toe with the best in the country.
Byrne was a wonderful player. Not the fastest, but he had a yard of pace. Skillful with a deft touch and wonderful intuition without being a bag of tricks, he was a clever, clever player who linked play, made space, scored goals, and could produce moments of magic.
‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, John Byrne, John Byrne’ also replaced Marco’s chant on the Fulwell End, and a promising partnership with Don Goodman – in the league, at least – meant we approached the 92-93 season with a little bit of optimism. Understandable, given we’d been in the first division barely 12 months earlier, and we’d demonstrated our potential during the cup run.
However, that optimism was tainted by the departure of influential skipper Paul Bracewell, and a poor start to the season saw it obliterated almost entirely.
Just two wins from the opening seven saw Malcolm Crosby’s team sitting in 19th place, and during a home draw with lowly Bristol Rovers, the crowd turned on former favourite John Byrne.
The game, which on paper looked like the ideal one to kick-start the season, got off to a poor start when Rovers’ future Sunderland striker, Marcus Stewart, put the Bristolians into the lead with a neat finish in the Fulwell.
Former Sunderland full back Paul Hardyman, who Crosby left out of the FA Cup Final lineup, prompting his departure, featured at left wing for the visitors, and almost got a second, early in the second half, which saw the frustration that was building on the terraces quickly bubble over.
Shortly after Hardyman’s miss, we were awarded a penalty after a handball in the box. Byrne stepped up to take it, but it was a poor effort – low and straight – which keeper Parkin saved without much trouble.
Roker Park was a wonderful place when things were going well. When they weren’t, however, it was a difficult place to play. Today was one of those days.
The crowd’s ire honed in on Byrne, who had been linked with moves away from the club. Millwall and West Ham were reportedly interested, and rumours of him being unsettled and wanting out of the club didn’t help the situation.
His performances so far this season hadn’t lived up to those he’d produced the season before, and boos accompanied his every touch from there on it. There was a gesture to the crowd at some point in the second half, as Byrne’s frustration reached boiling point, which only inflamed things further.
He did manage to get a neatly-taken equaliser in the game’s closing moments that rescued a point, but that did little to settle the situation.
After the match, Crosby was insistent the ‘boo boys’ wouldn’t be allowed to force Byrne out of the club.
I turned Millwall’s offer down because I wasn’t interested.
The latest incident won’t drive him out because I want him to stay.
Fans picked on Byrne because he missed a penalty. But he was still one of our best players and got our late goal.
The fans loved him after his cup exploits last season. I think it’s just frustration because we’re not winning matches.
If they want to have a go at anybody, I wish it was me and not the players.
Players are humans and John was upset by the crowd reaction. Nobody likes getting stick and it can have an effect.
But I have spoken to home and he is professional enough to handle it. You have to have thick skin in this game and he’s just getting on with it.
As it turned out, that was Byrne’s last game at Roker Park for Sunderland. After another defeat, this time away at Watford, in which a lacklustre Byrne was subbed off after an hour, further talks were held and a renewed offer from Mick McCarthy’s Millwall was accepted.
It was a sudden and sorry end to Byrne’s time at Sunderland – I, for one, can’t remember another player whose stock with the crowd fell so quickly, from such heights, as Byrne’s did.
However, the years that followed have been kind – and those FA Cup memories certainly shine a lot brighter than those poor few weeks in September of 1992.
After all, we’ll always have Upton Park.