Breaking News: Johnny Byrne: A fan favorite in south, east, and west London – News – Crystal Palace F.C.

Football often possesses a funny habit of reuniting old friends, as proved to be the case when Johnny Byrne returned to Crystal Palace from West Ham United in February 1967.

A legendary figure among fans of both clubs, Byrne – who sadly passed away in Cape Town, South Africa, on this day (27th October) in 1999 – was born in West Horsley in Surrey and lived in South Norwood.

As is so often the case for bright footballing talents, Byrne proved a late bloomer at youth level, having represented amateur sides Epsom Town and Guildford City Youth until shortly before his 16th birthday.

His potential was identified by his schoolteacher Vincent Blore, perchance also a former Palace and West Ham player, but Byrne reputedly required four trials with the Eagles before manager Cyril Spiers was fully convinced of his talents.

After representing Palace in the 1955/56 and ’56/57 FA Youth Cups, impressing enough to be selected for England’s youth sides, Byrne signed his first professional contract on his 17th birthday in May 1956.

He went on to make his professional debut for the club five months later following an injury to Mike Deakin, and while the goals did not initially flow for Palace’s hot prospect – Byrne scored just seven times in 28 appearances in 57/58 – those numbers soon picked up as the forward developed his trademark confidence and swagger on the ball.

A mere 1.7 metres tall, Byrne’s stocky figure and quick feet made him a popular figure among Palace supporters, with many enjoying the entertainment of his consummate class, while he earned the nickname “Budgie” due to his talkative nature on the field.

A deep-lying centre forward before the position became widely adopted, Byrne’s hold-up play, close control and eye for a long ball made him not only a prolific goalscorer but also a valuable creator for his teammates.

As Byrne’s confidence grew, so too did his influence on the field: after scoring 17 and 16 times in respective seasons in the Fourth Division with the then-Glaziers – including a brace in Palace’s club-record 9-0 victory over Barrow – his best campaign yet earned him international recognition.

In 1960/61, not only did Byrne net 30 of Palace’s 110 goals as Arthur Rowe’s side won promotion – a post-war record for the club, matched only by Glenn Murray in 2012/13 – but Byrne became the first Fourth Division player to win a cap for England’s Under-23s, featuring against Wales in a 2-0 win in February 1961. He would play twice more for the side over the subsequent month, scoring once.

Here was a young player at the peak of his talents. In his biography of Byrne, ‘Burn Budgie Byrne – Football Inferno’, Brian Belton writes: “His gifts were rare and real and it is likely that no better player has worn the claret and blue of Crystal Palace.”

Byrne’s sustained success in the red and blue prompted a full England call-up by manager Walter Winterbottom in November 1961, with the inside-left playing the whole of a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland – one of only five post-war players to feature for England despite playing outside the top two divisions.

Other clubs soon came calling, however, with Byrne moving to West Ham in early 1962 for a reported £65,000 and forward Ron Brett – then a record British transfer fee for a Third Division player – following protracted negotiations with Hammers’ boss Ron Greenwood, who described him as “the English Di Stefano.”

In east London for five years, Byrne would win the FA Cup (scoring the winning goal in 1964) and European Cup Winners’ Cup (in 1965) and – on an individual basis – even once beat out the late, great Bobby Moore to the club’s Player of the Year award.

Byrne’s form for West Ham would sadly begin to tail as injuries took hold and Sir Geoff Hurst grew in prominence, and despite his outstanding talent, the forward would win just 11 caps for his country, narrowly missing out on a place in England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup-winning squad.

And so to 15th February, 1967, when a plan to return to Palace for a fee of £45,000 was sealed. His first appearance was in a Friendly at Selhurst Park the following evening.

With the Glaziers in the Second Division at this point, Byrne would score six times further in the subsequent two seasons, taking his total in red and blue to 101 goals in 259 appearances.

After just over a year further with Palace, Byrne moved to Fulham for a further season in west London – coincidentally transferred as the two sides travelled back to the capital on a train from Manchester.

He went on to sign for Durban City in South Africa, where he would conclude his playing career before moving into management.

Byrne tragically passed away in 1999 at the tender age of 60, but memories still abound of the young, local, genial talent who excelled for Palace, West Ham, Fulham and England on a variety of stages.

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