Continuing my look back to some Hammer of the Year winners who I’ve previously written about in the ‘Club Connections’ section of my match previews, today we take a look at the 1964 winner of the coveted prize as voted for by the supporters…
Johnny ‘Budgie’ Byrne was born in West Horsley, Surrey, on 13th May 1939 to Irish immigrants. He played youth football for Epsom Town and Guildford City while working as an apprentice toolmaker before his schoolteacher and ex-Crystal Palace and West Ham goalkeeper Vincent Blore alerted Palace manager Cyril Spiers to the teenage Byrne’s talents.
Byrne signed a professional contract on his 17th birthday in 1956 and made his debut against Swindon while still on National Service – he played in the same Army XI as Alan Hodgkinson (Sheffield United), Bill Foulkes and Duncan Edwards (both Manchester United). Byrne went on to score seven times in 28 matches in the 1957/58 season as Palace finished in 14th place in the Third Division South. He scored 17 goals in 45 matches in the 1958/59 season as the club became founder members of the Fourth Division, new manager George Smith leading the ‘Glaziers’, as they were known, to a seventh-place finish. In 1959/60 Byrne scored 16 times in 42 matches as Palace finished eighth in Division Four. Byrne became a first team regular, and was popular with the Palace fans. A new breed of striker, standing only 5’8 but weighing 11.5 stone, Byrne was adept at dropping off his marker and finding space before either assisting a team-mate with an inspired pass or using his own skill, speed and powerful right foot to create opportunities for himself. In the 1960/61 season, Byrne scored 30 of Palace’s 110 goals as the club reached the Third Division. He left Crystal Palace in 1962 for West Ham United having scored 85 league goals in 203 appearances.
Ron Greenwood paid a fee of £65,000 to take the 22-year-old ‘Budgie’ to West Ham United, a record fee between two British clubs – a jovial character, the nickname ‘Budgie’ was the result of Byrne’s incessant, cheerful chattering. The fee was made up of £58,000 plus ex-Palace striker Ron Brett who was valued at £7,000. Brett was tragically killed five months after the move at the age of 24, when his car hit a lorry. Greenwood would later compare Byrne with Argentine footballer Alfredo Di Stefano. Byrne’s Hammers debut came on 17th March 1962 in a 0-0 draw at Sheffield Wednesday. He played 11 games in his first season, scoring a single goal, in a 4–1 home win against Cardiff in April 1962.
The 1962/63 season saw him score a hat-trick in a 6-0 League Cup win over Plymouth and end the season with 14 goals in all competitions, only one behind leading scorer Geoff Hurst. Byrne beat runner-up Bobby Moore in the Hammer of the Year voting in 1963/64 as the Hammers won the FA Cup. Byrne had amassed 33 goals from 45 games in all competitions for this season, overtaking Hurst as top goalscorer. This included a league hat-trick in a 4-3 win over Sheffield Wednesday and FA Cup goals in the fourth round against Leyton Orient, the fifth round against Swindon and two in the quarter-final against Burnley.
The 1964/65 season opened with Byrne scoring as West Ham and champions Liverpool shared the Charity Shield having drawn the game 2–2. He also scored a hat-trick as the Hammers beat Tottenham 3-2 at Upton Park (his treble can be viewed in my video below). Byrne scored in the first round of the European Cup Winners’ Cup against La Gantoise, the third round against Lausanne and in the semi-final against Real Zaragoza. In the 1965/66 season West Ham were again involved in Europe as holders of the Cup Winners’ Cup and also reached the 1966 League Cup Final. Byrne was on the scoresheet in the Cup Winners’ Cup, in the second round against Olympiakos, the third round against Magedeburg and in the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund as the Hammers exited the competition. He scored five goals in six games in the League Cup including one in the first-leg of the final against West Brom which West Ham won 2–1. Albion won the second leg 4-1 at The Hawthorns though to take the trophy with a 5-3 aggregate win. Byrne finished the season with 17 goals in all competitions behind Geoff Hurst who, on the verge of his 1966 World Cup success, scored 40 goals in 59 games.
Byrne played for England at both youth and Under-23 levels, becoming the first Fourth Division player to win an Under-23 cap while with Crystal Palace. Byrne, however, might be described as a talented nearly man, missing out as he did on places in both the 1962 and 1966 England World Cup squads. First capped for the senior England team in 1961, for a game against Northern Ireland and while still at Crystal Palace, Byrne seemed likely to figure in the 1962 World Cup in Chile having been transferred across London for a sizeable fee in the months before the tournament. However, Byrne was involved in a post-match fracas with West Brom and former England right-back Don Howe in the tunnel at The Hawthorns on 31st March 1962. The story goes that influential figures at the Football Association – where a selection committee still carried great influence when picking the team – were unimpressed by this and consequently excluded him. Byrne notched his first England goals in June 1963 in an 8-1 away win over Switzerland but perhaps his finest Three Lions moment arrived in May 1964 when he scored three goals in Lisbon as England beat Eusebio’s Portugal 4-3, Byrne clinching his hat-trick with an 88th-minute winner.
Byrne helped England beat Wales at Wembley the following season while playing at inside-left and started in the same position at Wembley again in April 1965 for a 2-2 draw against Scotland, in a season he comfortably ended as West Ham’s top goalscorer with 25 goals. For Byrne, a man with the world at his feet, one of the First Division’s top forwards, on the verge of a European final and now having the chance to re-establish himself in the England team a year before the World Cup finals, this proved to be the last of his 11 international caps. England were reduced to ten men against the Scots when Ray Wilson was forced off by injury. With no substitutes allowed, Byrne slotted in as emergency full back – however, Byrne himself then suffered an injury to his knee but gamely battled on with the Three Lions effectively down to nine men. Byrne’s injury, however, was serious with ligament damage to the knee and he had done himself no favours by playing on. He not only had to sit out the rest of the Hammers’ triumphant European campaign, but he was still not fit come the start of the following season. Byrne returned but could only show glimpses of his previous form and was hindered by injury throughout the 1965/66 campaign. His exceptional talents were never in doubt but, although he scored eight goals for England in his 11 appearances, he never fully established himself at international level.
Byrne’s last appearance for the Irons came against Sunderland on 11th February 1967 – in a fitting farewell, he scored alongside Hurst in a 2-2 draw. The 27-year-old Budgie returned to Crystal Palace, by now in the Second Division, in February 1967 in a deal worth £45,000 – his five years of service to the Hammers, consisting of 206 appearances and 108 goals, had ended up costing the club just £13,000. He scored one goal from 14 appearances in his first season back at Palace and four goals in 22 appearances in 1967/68. Byrne was proving to be past his peak as a player and, only a year after rejoining the club, he was transferred to Fulham for £25,000 in March 1968. Byrne would eventually go to play in South Africa, where he also went into management at Durban City, who he led to South African League and Cup titles in the 1970s. Byrne would go on to manage Greek side Hellenic and was voted Coach of the Year in 1993, winning a trip back to England to watch Arsenal play Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Final that year.
Bobby Moore was a close friend of Byrne’s – according to acclaimed sports writer Brian Glanville, the two men once sat together on a warm South African night when Moore said, envisaging a partnership in management: “You and me, Budgie, you and me!” It was never to be. Moore passed away in February 1993 and Byrne died, aged 60, of a heart attack in Cape Town, South Africa on 27th October 1999. A minute’s silence was held for Byrne and his former team-mate Dave Bickles, who had died five days after ‘Budgie’, at the 0-0 UEFA Cup draw against Steaua Bucharest at Upton Park.
My video below contains six of Byrne’s 108 goals for West Ham United – his hat-trick against Tottenham on 12th September 1964, an FA Cup strike against Birmingham on 9th January 1965, a match-winning penalty against Arsenal on 27th March 1965 and a goal from the European Cup Winners’ Cup Semi-Final second leg against Borussia Dortmund on 13th April 1966.