It’s a story out of a Boy’s Own Annual. A blonde-haired lad shows exceptional talent as a Junior League footballer, walks straight into a top-shelf Ovens and Murray side and plays in a premiership in his 21st game.
Pursued by a VFL club,he makes his League debut, aged 19. Then, two years later, runs around the MCG ,as he and his team-mates share in the delerium of a premiership triumph.
No, that’s not all. Whilst still in celebration mode he is selected to represent Victoria in a State of Origin clash against Western Australia. He pulls on the ‘Big V’ Guernsey and runs onto Subiaco Oval alongside boyhood idols like Kevin Sheedy, Bruce Doull, Kevin Bartlett and Robbie Flower……………
Like most of Jack Maroney’s mates, Billy Byrne had become a dyed-in-the-wool Rovers’ supporter and nothing was to give him greater pleasure than for his son John to wear the Brown and Gold. No great shakes as a footballer himself, he took pride in being a reasonable judge of the game.
So he felt it was his duty to point out to Hawk secretary Tom Tobin and coach Neville Hogan that….”the young bloke’s going all right with Imperials. I think you should have a look at him “.
Hogan hadn’t seen the tall, lean Byrne before, but he immediately knew that he was a star in the making. So much so that he arranged for him to play some reserves games at the end of the Junior League season.
And, as the 1972 pre-season came around, Byrne, just turned 16, joined several other recruits at the Findlay Oval. Among them were Mervyn Holmes, a rough-nut from Milawa, Greta’s fleet-footed Leigh Hartwig and a bloke from Hastings – Daryl Smith.
Hogan had no hesitation in throwing Byrne into the fray. “He was an automatic selection. We played him in key positions, against the stars of the game. Sometimes we had to give him a bit of a break because he wasn’t as physically strong as his opponents. He was terrific down back and wouldn’t hesitate to run and bounce the ball out of defence”.
The Rovers weren’t the best team during the home-and-home rounds of 1972. And, after being easily defeated by Benalla in the Qualifying Final, they were at long odds in their bid to make it two flags in a row. But they narrowly won the next two games to set up a Grand Final clash with Yarrawonga.
It was a match that was highlighted by some fierce physical clashes, a Rovers come-back,a classical ruck display by Mick Nolan and the Hawks’ sloppy kicking, as they won 12.20 to 11.9.
North Melbourne assistant-coach Bill Stephen and secretary Ron Joseph were at the game to run the rule over Byrne, who starred at centre half forward. But they also became excited by the exhibition of the ‘man-mountain’, Nolan and coaxed him down to Arden Street the following season.
North wanted Byrne at North in 1973, but he was keen to do his Year 12 at Champagnat College.He enjoyed another fine season and played his 43rd– and final – game with the Hawks in the Preliminary Final.
He began his teaching studies at university and played with North Reserves in 1974.The following season he had a taste of senior football (5 games) and took out the ‘Roos Reserves Best and Fairest award.
Byrne found that the most difficult task for a young boy from the bush was coming to the realisation that you were as good as the blokes you were training with. By 1976 he had become a regular in the senior team and, for the next three seasons, came to be regarded among the finest ruck-rovers in the nation.
He played a central role in the drama of the 1977 drawn Grand Final and the euphoric scenes that accompanied the ‘Roos victory the following week.
With his form at its peak and looking forward to a long and fruitful League career, the first clouds appeared on the horizon when he collided with Collingwood’s Andrew Ireland in 1978. Both players got up holding their heads, but Byrne didn’t realise that he had also broken a bone in his leg.
It mended sufficiently to enable him to play in a Grand Final loss against Hawthorn, but still caused a bit of soreness. He was playing brilliant football the following year when he broke the same leg again.
He never really got back to 100% fitness after missing the rest of the year. He laboured on for a couple of seasons and put up with the pain. Then the doctor said … “if you want to walk later on in life,you’d better start thinking about giving footy away.”
Byrne was 26 when he retired. He never played again.
But this introduced the next phase in his football life, which has really been ongoing. In a succession of roles he was North Melbourne’s representative in their recruiting zone, worked for the AFL, for Football Victoria, was the Murray Bushrangers’ regional manager for 12 years and spent two years as President of the Wangaratta Junior Football League.
Byrne coached the Victorian Country Teal Cup team for many years and was the Ovens and Murray League’s representative coach from 1985 to 1989, as they won two Country Championship titles.
He is now fully occupied in running the family farm at Docker’s Plains and is currently the Chairman of AFL North-East Border Football, a role he finds very fulfilling.
Byrne and his wife Olga’s three daughters all played netball with the Wangaratta Rovers. Maddy and Bridgette now both play with Monash University teams and Georgia is with Sandhurst, in the Bendigo FNL competition.
He doesn’t take time to ponder the misfortune which saw a flourishing League career extinguished in his mid-twenties. Instead, John Byrne would prefer to remember the thrills that footy afforded him in his 98 games with North Melbourne and that brief two-year cameo with the Rovers.
#John Byrne is the Wang. Rovers youngest senior premiership player. At 16 years 212 days he was 75 days younger than both Gary Bell, who also played in the 1972 premiership and Shane Robertson, who was a member of the 1979 flag
# Byrne is one of five Wang.Rovers players who went on to experience premiership glory in the VFL/AFL. The list is: Norm Bussell (Hawthorn) 1971, Mick Nolan (North Melbourne) 1975, John Byrne (North Melbourne) 1977, Ben Reid (Collingwood) 2010, Sam Reid (Sydney Swans) 2012.