In an age when people are not inclined to give of their time freely for the betterment of others, Frank O’Byrne was one of the last of a dwindling company whose exploits distinguished football since the early 1950s. Quite simply he had no contemporaries, because he was truly a one-off. During a career that spanned more than 50 years and comprised many wonderful deeds of goodness to young footballers and their mentors, he stood tall as a singular mirror of the Waterford psyche.
His evolution from a Villa pioneer of the early fifties to the highly respected figure of 2008 seemed to personify a gentleman that evoked a tender romanticism and dreamy emotional link between thousands of parents and their children.
On Thursday last we were left lamenting the end of a love affair that involved hundreds and hundreds of families. Frank O’Byrne’s phenomenal work with the Villa Football Club and the Waterford Schoolboy League will never be forgotten because there is not a person on the face of this earth who could ever even dream of achieving what he did during his time with us. Frank or “Frankie” as we knew him, enjoyed robust good health nearly all his life, but began feeling unwell before Christmas and in recent months he had been undergoing treatments while still trying to continue his work for the Schoolboy League and other personal routines.
However, during the past three weeks an important component of his body’s immune system grew progressively worse and he was called away from us on May 15th, 2008.
Frankie was quintessentially a private person, but nevertheless he gave all of himself to everyone who needed help in any sort of way. He always displayed an originality, a perspicacity that set him apart from all the rest. He possessed a mysterious authority that would compel people to do things his way, whether they wanted to or not.
It was a wonderful gift. He never abused that gift in any way, but nevertheless he would, if possible, get the people who doubted his views to come around to his way of thinking, and later on they would agree that they were substantially better off.
I cannot remember when I first met Frankie but I can tell you it was a very long time ago. As a young boy growing up in the late 50s and early 60s I can still recall Frankie doing his bit for ‘The Villa’. In 1978 the club leased the ground beside Ozier Park from the Junior League. It was nothing more than a dumping ground but Frankie along with the club members of the time went about turning the area into a proper football pitch.
It took a lot of work because the entire place had to be cleared of rubbish and a drainage system had to be put in place. In 1980 those same members had built the original dressing-rooms at the entrance to the venue. As the years went by, Frankie was still there along with new members who had came along and on May 17th, 2003, the current ultra-modern clubhouse was officially opened as Villa F.C. celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The clubhouse was named after Frank O’Byrne, an honour that humbled him very much. A rubbish area in 1978 had by now been turned into a venue to be proud of, complete with an all-weather playing surface, four dressing-rooms, referees’ room and a multi-purpose recreation area which is used by young children and players alike. In recent times floodlights have been installed at ‘Connors Park’. The venue was named in memory of Eugene Connors, who served the club as a player, coach and secretary prior to his tragic death in 1983.
I personally got to know Frankie on two different fronts during recent times. As secretary of the Waterford Junior League I had to work closely with him as regards fixtures with his league and also his close ties with the Villa Football Club. I can recall our telephone calls on Friday mornings when the weather was bad and together we would have to make the decision to call off all games both at Junior and Schoolboy level.
He was always affable and helpful when we had to discuss different matters and I will always be eternally grateful to him for the help and advice he gave me during my years in office in Ozier Park. His experience made my job a lot easier. In September 1998 I took up a FAS course and was placed in Connors Park. I was to spend three wonderful years working alongside Frankie at his beloved venue.
At that time the club also had a pitch in St John’s College and on Friday mornings we would have to transport the pitch marker from Connors Park to the college for schoolboy games. I enjoyed every minute of those three years. We talked football and more football but we also spoke a lot about Frankie’s other main sporting passion, cricket. He loved the willow and ash and as we travelled from St John’s College to Connors Park we listened carefully to the test matches that were broadcast on BBC Radio.
Last year he got a great kick out of the Cricket World Cup when Trent Johnstone and the Ireland team did us all proud. He loved nothing more than to relax at night reading about the great cricket players of days gone by such as Sir Gary Sobers. Sunny days, cutting grass and lining pitches with Frankie was a joy, an honour I will never forget.
When Frankie along with people such as Frankie Farrell, Shamie Martin, Eddie Wall, Michael Kiely, Nicky Power, Eddie Wymberry, Sid Rellis, Billy Howlett and Eddie Smith formed the first committee of Villa Football Club in 1953 little did they know what they were creating. They were catering for the young boys of Griffith Place, Sexton Street, Leamy Street and the Morrisson’s Road area of the city. The club was made up of schoolboy teams and they developed into a Junior club in the late 50s.
They won the Munster Minor Cup in season 1959-60. They also became a Munster Senior League team in the early 60s and produced players such as Gene Roche, John Nolan, Billy Howlett, Ben Stokes, Sid Rellis, Johnny Toms, Al Casey, Frankie Mountain and Pat Flynn who went on to play League of Ireland football with Waterford FC.
Needless to say many tributes flowed when news of Frank O’Byrne’s death broke last Thursday. Frankie served the Schoolboy League for well over 40 years and the secretary of the league and SFAI Chairman Pat Kelly summed up his feelings with one simple statement: “Frankie was the single most important person in Waterford football. He will not and cannot ever be replaced.”
Paul Power, the Tramore coach, described Frankie as “an icon” and “a Villa legend. Frankie has been involved with the Villa and with schoolboy football for as long as I can remember. I can recall him coming to Tramore with the Villa when I was very young and football in Waterford, especially at underage level, will never be the same again now that he has passed on,” added Paul.
The new Minister for Arts Sport and Tourism, Martin Cullen, spoke lovingly about Frankie when I met him last weekend. “My son Christian plays for the Villa and I have seen first hand what he has done, not only for my son, but for hundreds more. Every single player that wore the Villa shirt were special in his eyes.
“He loved his Under ‘D’ team every bit as much as the top teams at the club, including the Premier team. There is no doubt whatsoever that the club will miss him greatly because he was the heart and soul of the club. He was a man I admired greatly, and I was not alone because thousands of people owe him a great deal of gratitude. His memory will live on forever and I was proud to call him a friend,” said Minister Cullen.
Frank O’Byrne cared for and coached thousands of young players down through the years and the parents of those youngsters will always be eternally grateful to him for the endless hours he gave, not only turning them into footballers but also getting them to be fine upstanding young men away from the world of football.
All of those parents will also have their tributes to pay to Frank O’Byrne for a very long time to come. The Waterford Schoolboy League called off their games due to be played on Friday and Saturday last, including three cup finals. I am not sure if Frankie would have approved of that move. He hated the idea of games having to be lost, but on this occasion the local league did the right thing. Hopefully he will have understood.
Frankie is survived by his brothers Jack, Teddy, Michael and Seamus and sister Maura. He cared for and loved his mother Eileen very much and it is ironic that Mrs O’Byrne was 98 years old on the day that Frankie was laid to rest. Our hearts are full of memories and pride when we speak his name. Though life goes on without him, it will never be the same.
Frankie was laid to rest in St Otteran’s Cemetery on Saturday last. May his gentle and caring soul rest in glorious peace. We will never forget him. The wonderful sight of dozens of young players, proudly wearing their green and white hooped Villa shirts as they formed a guard of honour on Friday night from his home, along Luke Wadding Street into the Holy Family Church was truly wonderful. Many of those youngsters cried openly because they had lost a father figure. They cried once again on Saturday as Frankie was buried.
On Friday night, and indeed for a while on Saturday, light rain fell on the massive attendance of mourners. Perhaps they were tears from God. Perhaps, just perhaps, he had got it wrong this time. Frankie had a lot more work to do for the Villa Football Club and for the Waterford Schoolboy League, but that time was not given to him. However he is at peace now and he can enjoy the exploits of his beloved Spurs and his cricket from above. He can look down on his Villa youngsters, especially the very young ones, and enjoy watching their progress with the club he founded all those years ago.