Former League of Ireland star Conan Byrne has organised more than a hundred players and managers to phone vulnerable fans for a friendly chat as we sink back into lockdown.
Ronan Finn, Ian Bermingham and Keith Buckley, captains of Shamrock Rovers, St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians respectively, are among the to take time from out of their day to brighten somebody else’s.
Ireland midfielder Jack Byrne phoned a Rovers fan in need of an uplift following a request from his Bohs-supporting friend, while sons and daughters have reached out for parents suffering in isolation.
The idea came to him when he watched former Mayo GAA star David Brady talking about a similar initiative he had undertaken that saw the likes of Peter Canavan contacted elderly people in lockdown.
“I was watching TV last week and I saw David Brady on Claire Byrne Live, and he was talking about what he did in the last lockdown,” Byrne told the Dublin Gazette.
“He was talking to some Mayo elderly gentlemen every Friday night about GAA and life in general, and how much it affected and helped those people.
“I just put it into my mind, why can’t we in the League do something similar? I just sent out a message to a couple of people and it spiralled from there.”
To say it spiralled would be an understatement – to date more, over a hundred League of Ireland players, as well as managers and former internationals, have volunteered.
The initial idea was to put elderly people who might be feeling isolated during lockdown with a voice to go with the familiar face.
It quickly became apparent that there are plenty of younger people in need of a comforting ear as well.
Byrne contacted his old St Patrick’s Athletic teammate Lee Desmond to speak to a young fan who had experienced family tragedy at home while stranded on the other side of the globe.
“Lee contacted a St Pat’s supporter over in Australia. He’d just left Ireland to be with his girlfriend and, when he got there, his brother tragically died here and he was unable to return home.
“He could only watch his brother’s funeral through Zoom. That was particularly heart-breaking. Lee’s his favourite player and he just listened to his story.
“Talking to Lee afterwards, it had a big effect on him as well. That was one tragic story but there’s been some really nice ones as well.”
There are more heart-warming stories, like former Finn Harps and Celtic star Paddy McCourt making the day of a 74-year-old recently-widowed Harps fan.
Cork City captain Gearoid Morrissey shrugged aside the disappointment of relegation the day before to phone a young City fan struggling with their mental health.
And the daughter of Harps fan Kathleen was so moved by the effect a call from current player Raffaele Cretaro that she made a big donation to the mental health charity Aware.
“Raff Cretaro rang a 78-year-old woman up in Ballybofey and was just chatting to her about what it was like playing in the League.
“She was telling him she was a big Finn Harps supporter with her husband, who passed away three years ago. They went to every game, home and away, and would stay over in Dublin and Cork.
“It has such an impact on Kathleen that her daughter wanted to do something, so she donated to the Alone charity after that because it gave [Kathleen] such a lift.
“The players deserve so much credit for what they’ve done. It’s been so heart-warming to see them doing it.”
Byrne initially planned to make it a short-lived thing but, such has been the success of the scheme, he may find it continues to take on a life of its own.
“The only problem is, I’m running out of players now at this stage with the amount of calls we’ve done and I don’t really want to go back to the same players over and over again.
“I don’t think it’s fair, even though they’ve had no problems.
“They’ve been absolutely terrific – not one player has turned the call down or anything like that.
“All the players are just normal lads. Some of them are still working, some are part-time, and they’re saying to me, ‘Conan, do you mind if I give them a ring after work?’
“It just goes to show that they want to give their time to make these calls to people that feel the need to receive.”