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Paying tribute to Johnny Byrne

August 10 2015

Johnny Byrne

Johnny Byrne

Crystal Palace fans enjoying life in the Premier League ought to reflect back on the young local player who arguably sparked the club's ascendancy 55 years ago, writes Iain Gordon.

In the 1960/61 season, Palace romped to promotion from the newly-formed Fourth Division and playing exquisite football, scoring 110 goals in the process - often in front of huge record attendances of up to 38,000.

The team was on the march from the basement, albeit slowly, and with many travails to come.

The player who most excited the crowds then was Johnny Byrne, born in West Horsley, Surrey, living in Wrights Road, South Norwood, and managed by the esteemed Arthur Rowe.

Rowe was a shrewd coach and an absolute gentleman. In Byrne, he had the ideal prodigy for his polished push-and-run football. Patient encouragement and tolerance nurtured the mischievous, effusive boy wonder to kick-start Palace's rise and emerge as their greatest post-war player.

Brian Beltonís superb biography 'Burn Budgie Byrne - Football Inferno' accurately acclaims the young footballing artist: "His gifts were rare and real and it is likely that no better player has worn the claret and blue of Crystal Palace."

Belton is right. Byrne was well before his time - he oozed consummate class. He was a mere 1.74m tall, stocky with a nautical roll and lightning-quick feet.

As a deep lying centre forward holding the ball up, the old-style defenders did not know how to handle him. With superlative control and a great eye for the long ball, he engineered as well as scored goals. Byrne would undoubtedly grace any of todayís top teams.

He was the first Fourth Division player to be selected for England Under-23s, making three appearances in five weeks in early 1961 and scoring once (below: a back page sports story on the Mirror).

Later that year, England manager Walter Winterbottom selected Byrne, then a Third Division player, to receive a full international cap against Northern Ireland at Wembley. I bunked off my Selhurst school on a Wednesday afternoon to watch his debut.

Following that, Byrne scored three in three games for England Under-23s. It became clear that reluctant chairman Arthur Wait would have to sell the coveted young genius for a British record fee to a West Ham, captained by a young Bobby Moore and astutely-managed by Ron Greenwood. Greenwood later described Byrne as "the English Di Stefano". Some accolade.

Byrne scored 95 goals in 220 games for Palace. Latterly 107 goals for West Ham and eight in 11 games for England. Sadly, injury curtailed his playing career when he should have been in his prime.

I had the immense privilege of meeting Byrne at a Selhurst function on December 12, 1990. I was totally awestruck but he was down-to-earth, very chatty of course, but modest and very honest about his controlled drink problem. He gave me his autograph which I have proudly retained.

Unbeknownst to me a few days later, Byrne was invited by chairman Ron Noades to open a hospitality suite dedicated to his name in the Main Stand at Selhurst (see below).

I later visited the suite appropriately adorned with pictures of the great man. Unaccountably and quite disgracefully, although the room is still there, it is no longer dedicated to him. According to the club, although I have yet to confirm it, there is now a "Johnny Byrne bar" of some description unfittingly tucked away somewhere in the Holmesdale Stand.

Regrettably in 1999, John Joseph (Budgie) Byrne tragically died of a heart attack aged only 60.

In my opinion, it's deeply disrespectful of the club to later renounce a suite which was personally and ceremonially opened in honour of our greatest player without consultation, without making any proper arrangement or even having any future plans.

Tweet your feedback to Iain @lyeemoon.

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