“I won it before in 1999. David Whyte was a child at the time.”
Ronan Sweeney is laughing at the thought that when he was a 19-year-old winning the Moorefield player of the year award, his future team-mate was in primary school.
Seven years later Whyte would be one of the Moorefield goalscorers, along with Sweeney, on the most famous day in the club’s history – their Leinster title success against Rhode in Portlaoise. Since then they’ve won two more Kildare championships (2007 and 2010) but that’s not nearly enough to sate the appetite of such an ambitious club.
“I’m a very proud clubman. It’s great satisfaction for a couple of minutes but the night of the award, I was thinking to myself, our senior Bs were getting presented with championship medals and it’s coming into our (seniors) third year now without really winning anything,” says Sweeney, who was named the 2012 senior player of the year on the night in question – Moorefield’s annual dinner dance on 15 February. “The older you get you kind of sense that time running out. There was no medals given out and that’s what it’s all about. It is great and I was delighted but the other Newbridge boys have the cup.”
Better known as Sarsfields, those Newbridge boys were the ones who ended Moorefield’s bid for an historic three-in-a-row in 2008, thus preserving their own proud record that dated back to the 1950s. Now the Sash have the Cup again, the boys on the other side of Newbridge want it back.
“There’s nothing like Sarsfields winning a championship to get lads up training,” says Sweeney, who played his first game of the year for the Moores in their Aldridge Cup victory against Confey on Saturday. Yet Sweeney’s club appearances have become more and more infrequent as the demands of inter-county football have increased over the course of a 14-year career.
“There’s so much involved in playing inter-county level these days. For what you want to fit in, there are not enough days in the week. It’s very difficult on fellas that are playing week in, week out to be expected then to go back to the club,” he says.
“It’s difficult when you’re away for so long from the club lads, it’s hard to just slot back in. Something I always try and do is really give it absolutely everything you have and let other boys know that while you’re away (with Kildare), that you are training just as hard or harder and you’re going to come back and try and lead the whole thing. You always feel like you owe that to the club lads for putting up with you being away the whole time.”
The growth of the inter-county game has undoubtedly been been detrimental to those who play club football. Among players like Sweeney, there is a sense of guilt about how club players have been treated in their absence.
“You do feel (guilty) but there’s nothing you can do about it. You do be thinking this isn’t right. And there’s a lot of disrespect shown to the club championship because if a county team goes far, the club championship is run off then on a weekly basis or even midweek. It’s not fair on fellas that have been waiting around for nine months and then they’re expected to play two championship games in a week – a fella could get a small knock and miss out on three games. It’s not right.”
Even though Kildare takes up the vast majority of his time throughout the year, the plight of clubs is something that Sweeney is clearly passionate about. When he outlines the club and county schedules, it’s clear just how unfair the current setup is.
“Inter-county players know from January to whenever – you can nearly write out the nights you’re training for the whole year and the games you’re going to be playing but at club level it’s just guesswork. There’s fellas doing pre-season in January, they’re playing the league and then do another pre-season in the summer when they should be playing their games.
“If we keep going the way we’re going, it’s getting more and more difficult for clubs to field teams. And I know a lot of it is because fellas are emigrating but a lot of it is because fellas are losing interest waiting around for championships. They can’t book a holiday, they don’t know when things are going to be played.”
Although everyone knows it’s a problem that needs solving sooner rather than later, change seems unlikely in the immediate future. Luckily, life isn’t so staid and static with Kildare. While this is his 14th year on the panel, Sweeney has seen as much upheavel in the last five months as he has in all that time as a Lilywhite.
“The new management team as well as the new players have brought a new life to the whole thing
The new lads and the under-21s are really a breath of fresh air, they’re playing off the cuff and just having a go,” says Sweeney referring to their off-season recruits: selectors Damien Hendy and Jason Ryan as well as young players like Daniel Flynn, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy.
“In years gone by you’d spot the under-21 guy or the younger guy straight away because they wouldn’t be as strong or well built. Now it’s completely different, it’s nearly the opposite. They’re giants. They’re so strong. Paddy Brophy there and Daniel Flynn in particular, their strength is unbelievable for such young guys.”
Flynn nailed down a starting place during the O’Byrne Cup and so far he has produced two eye-catching displays in the National League. It’s not by accident that the transition to senior football has been so smooth.
“I know from talking to Daniel, in school where he went to in Edenderry, they had an excellent strength and conditioning coach. And you can see the benefits out of it now.”
The arrival of two new selectors – in particular the high-profile addition of former Wexford boss Jason Ryan – is obviously proving beneficial as well considering Kildare have won all seven games so far this year.
“His training ideas are very good and all football-based, very technical. It’s making us think a little bit more and to think a little bit better about the game and about positions and where fellas are going,” says Sweeney of Jason Ryan’s impact but it’s a results business at this level and wins against Dublin, Donegal and Cork have lifted the county in recent weeks.
“They’re exciting games for us and it’s great to be involved in Division 1 especially with the new lads coming in. It gives them a sense that they can compete and beat the best. It really gives everyone a confidence boost. Now we’re not getting too carried away. Our survival in Division 1 is the main thing for this year.”
Self-confidence and extreme focus are all attributes that have become apparent since Kieran McGeeney took charge of the side in 2007 and having soldiered with Kildare for seven seasons before that, Sweeney knows how far they’ve come in the last six years.
“We’ve probably all come a long way since Kieran came – watching our diet and training techniques. It’s trying to perfect that and it’s a way of life anyway, inter-county football. You have to be thinking when you’re going to the cinema, whether you’re going to have coke or water – as sad as that bloody sounds. It’s not going to make the difference between kicking the ball over the bar or not but still if it’s a tiny per cent… All these small things if they added up to something that would help you get over the line, sure they’re worth it.”
Next time you see Sweeney at the cinema you’ll understand why he’s got a bottle of water with him. He’s watching the bigger picture.