Football / FA Cup Countdown: Wembley fans Byrne desire: Oxford's talismanic target-man sets sights again. Trevor Haylett reports

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The Independent Online
THROUGH the relegation clouds hovering over Oxford United, the spotlight of the FA Cup continues to shine, and once more it beckons John Byrne to glory. They have a place in the fifth round this weekend and he has that lucky feeling all over again.

Up for the cup? Then Byrne's your man. Two years ago he scored in every round to take Sunderland to Wembley as a welcome relief from the struggle to stay in the then Second Division. Now the same pattern is beginning to emerge for the men at the Manor, who have already seen off Leeds and who look on Chelsea's visit tomorrow as a not insurmountable hurdle to the quarter-finals.

Certainly Byrne would not have hand-picked any other opponents, pointing to one of those sides he has enjoyed most success against over the years. He says he is 'very confident' despite last week's 4-0 thrashing at home to Charlton which dropped them to the bottom of the table. 'We outplayed them for half an hour and they are not far away from being a good side. Chelsea won't relish it on our slope - I never used to like coming to Oxford - and they know they are in for a tough time.'

Without their captain and chief influence, Jim Magilton, who no sooner had thumped home the extra-time winner against Leeds before he was packing his bags for Southampton, there is more responsibility than ever on Oxford's 33-year-old talisman.

'It definitely could be happening for me all over again because I scored in the third round against Tranmere and again at Elland Road in the replay. That was one of the most dramatic games I have ever played in, because after Leeds scored twice in the last two minutes to force extra time we looked to have gone. What happened at Sunderland was 'Roy of the Rovers' stuff, and I suppose it's what people will remember me for when I pack up.'

One more in the final against Liverpool would have installed Byrne alongside Peter Osgood as those who have scored in every round. 'I should have done so, as well,' he said recalling the fateful 13th minute, 'but I snatched at the ball as it came across and the chance had gone. After half-time we stopped playing and Liverpool finished easy winners.

'As nice as it is to play at Wembley, it's a huge disappointment to go there and lose. You can see the cup yet you know you can't get your hands on it.' Wembley woe was not a novel experience, for before that there were defeats in the 1986 Milk Cup final (for QPR against Oxford), the 1991 Second Division play-off final with Brighton and for the Republic of Ireland against England in 1985.

Four bad memories and all hard to take. 'It's actually five because I went to Wembley in the summer to see U2, and had an awful view about 300 miles from the stage]'

After Sunderland Byrne was delighted to return south, where he had enjoyed 'my happiest spell in the game' at Brighton, and to Millwall, where he linked up with his Republic of Ireland team-mate, Mick McCarthy. The old pals' act did not work out and after 14 games with just one goal, 'an insufficient time to impress', it was back to the Goldstone Ground on loan at the end of last season.

With a house in nearby Shoreham and the family looking on Brighton as home, Byrne would have been happy to stay - if they could have afforded him. That not being so, it was his good fortune that Denis Smith had just taken over at Oxford and, armed with a share of the fee that took old boy Mark Stein to Chelsea from Stoke, was eager to renew their partnership one more time.

'Denis took me to Sunderland and if it had not been for him my career might have never have got going in the first place. When he came to York I wasn't in the team and there was talk of me going on a free to Scunthorpe or Rochdale, you know, those glamour places.

'Denis came across me training on my own and asked what I was doing, because he thought I showed more skill than anyone else in the club. 'He's on the way out,' the trainer said. 'For one thing he suffers from hay fever and is allergic to grass'.'

Considering the handicap which could be fatal for a footballing career, Byrne has done quite well on the green stuff and hopes to play on as long as is possible.

(Photograph omitted)