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"We Turned To Face The Flag And I Cried" - Nicky Byrne Recalls His Leeds And Ireland Career Before Westlife

James Carroll
By James Carroll
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Former Westlife star Nicky Byrne was on Second Captain's Sundays this morning discussing his sporting life and the two years he spent at Leeds United as a goalkeeper.

The Dubliner went to be part of one of the most successful bands of all time, who had 14 number one hits in the United Kingdom and sold over a whopping 50 million albums

Before his music career thought, football was Byrne's first love and played for Home Farm in Dublin as a teenager.

His football pedigree should be of no surprise to anyone who's ever watched "Soccer Aid".


As a goalkeeper, he went to Leeds as a trialist at 16, alongside Alan Maybury and Stephen McPhail, and won a two year contract. While there, he would go on to the win the FA Youth Cup in 1997. His closest shave with the first team came just two months after he had left school in Baldoyle, when he found himself on the bench for a Premier League game.

Mark Beeney, who was the reserve goalkeeper for the first team, (John Lukic was first choice) he had been sent off in a reserve game which meant he was suspended, so they had no goalkeeper.

They came to me, and I was 16 and a half, this was like two months after leaving school and Paul Harte called me into the office and he sent me to see Howard Wilkinson who was the gaffer and he (Wilkinson) said to me, ‘We are playing Southampton on Thursday night and you’re in the squad’, and I thought he meant I was in the squad to carry the tea, clean the boots or put the kit out but he said, ‘I just need to know if you need to play, how are you feeling?’

I remember just absolutely panicking but the competitive edge and belief in yourself was, look the manager in the eye say; ‘No I’m okay, I am ready,’ and your inner self is saying; ‘NO YOU’RE NOT!’.


He also represnted Ireland from Under 15 to Under 18 level, eventually playing with an incredble team including Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, and Richie Sadlier.



The games he played for Ireland are still a source of huge pride for Byrne.

My debut was against Switzerland, in Basel, and we won 4-0 over there which was a huge result for an Irish 15s to go and win 4-0.

The likes of Damien Duff and Alan Maybury were in that squad, Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne were younger than us, but I remember the feeling of arriving in Switzerland in the Irish tracksuits, they were black, they had two green stripes and had the crest and the Opel, and I felt like a professional footballer.

On the bus journeys, the training grounds, the feeling of playing for Ireland was huge and that never left me.

All the things I ever did in Westlife, I always had the tricolour on my microphone, always had it in my in-ear monitors. Even doing the Eurovision two years ago it was more of a national pride thing for me. But one of the biggest moments to this day in everything that I’ve been lucky enough to do was, we played in a tournament in Portugal, we played against Portugal and there was probably 3 or 4,000 at the game, no Irish obviously, but we stood for the national anthem and we turned and faced the flag and I cried.

I was 18, I was playing for Leeds United at the time, but I cried at the thought of what my mum and dad, who were at home, would be thinking right now and obviously for me that was only the start of what I hoped would go on to play 21s and senior level, which obviously didn’t happen in the end.

Eventually, Byrne said he height (5ft,9) worked against him and he was released by Leeds. He says he felt like a failure coming home, but I think we can all agree things worked out pretty well in the end. A year later, Westlife were formed.

Listen to the full Nicky Byrne interview on Second Captains Sunday here.

Nowadays, Nicky hosts The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene on 2fm weekdays between 10 and 1. You can hear our editor Mick McCarthy on the show each Wednesday just after 12 o'clock.


SEE ALSO: Richie Sadlier Reveals How An Occult Ritual Affected The Build-Up To An Irish Youth International


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