HE was never too concerned about the future. In fact Gaelic football didn’t really matter until he won a minor championship with his club Moorefield in 1997 and even then he considered staying at home for the final.
When he made the transition to the Kildare team that won a Leinster title in 2000 there was little to worry about until Sos Dowling cornered him in a pub after one of the games.
“He was thick with me that I was in the pub. I remember him telling me I’d done absolutely nothing yet and I thought it was a little bit harsh. Looking back on it he was dead right.”
Dowling was never one for platitudes even though his softly spoken manner suggests a gentler soul than the one that demanded relentless running from the Moorefield minor team that won their first ever county championship 12 years ago.
“He’s nice man off the pitch but he’s a winner, he knows how to win and I’ve the greatest of respect for him. Eric McDonnell was minor manager in ‘97. Sos was our trainer. Sos was with Kildare at the time and we were doing a lot of the stuff that Kildare were doing. Only for that Moorefield wouldn’t have won the championship that year.”
When the final came round he stayed home from his holidays but when he read his name in the subs list on the programme the morning of the final he was gutted.
“I presumed I was on the bloody bench and I nearly wasn’t going to turn up. Luckily enough I did start and I went out to midfield in the second half.”
In his sitting room an imposing piece of crystal sits on the fireplace. The ornament is in the shape of a football and his name is inscribed on the front – Ronan Sweeney, RTÉ Man of the Match, Kildare v Offaly, Leinster SFC, 25 May ‘09.
“Who knows if we hadn’t won that minor in ‘97, would I have kept playing? When I was 19 I was one of the main players with the club whereas with Kildare I was only breaking into the team. It’s life, when you’re not a big part of a winning team it doesn’t mean as much to you, whereas the win with the Kildare senior championship with the club in 2000 after 50 or 60 years it was brilliant, I’ll never forget the excitement. If we won the Leinster now with Kildare it’d be different, it would mean a lot more to me.”
Ronan Sweeney is getting married next year and if it was any sooner he’d have problems because the invitation list keeps growing.
“There’s a lot more names now than there was at the start of the year. I think I’ve made more friends in the last two years than I ever have with football.”
Sweeney has been playing with Kildare for ten years and while it doesn’t feel like he’s been around that long his performances suggest a man that knows he can’t afford to wait around much longer.
All through the league campaign his form was one of many highlights for manager Kieran McGeeney and when it came to championship, he delivered a display against Offaly so good the man-of-the-match committee returned a unanimous verdict. Against Wexford he was just as good and when the going got tough against Laois he was there to kick three points in the first half.
“I don’t think I appreciated it at all with Kildare in 2000, I thought that this is just the way it is. I totally took it for granted but that won’t be the case this year if I win it.”
It was easy to see why Sweeney got swept along when he first arrived on the scene. He was never much of a footballer growing up, the last sub on an under-14 Féile team that went to Kerry one year and at 16 his soccer skills were on display in the Dublin schoolboy leagues with Stella Maris, the breeding ground for talent like current Irish international Keith Andrews and former Liverpool player Richie Partridge. Sweeney was a big fish in the Kildare pond but he quickly learned that the pond was much bigger with Stella and most of the players, including Andrews and Partridge, were already scouted for trials in England by the time he arrived.
While he missed out on game time in the GAA’s biggest underage competition in Kerry he did feature in soccer’s equivalent, the Milk Cup, in Northern Ireland.
“It was a great experience, we played against some Premiership teams but it wasn’t for me. I really enjoyed soccer but I don’t like it at all now, I only follow Celtic. I just fell out of love with it. I played up front. I was tall enough for my age but I still couldn’t header the ball!”
All the while his friends were making strides with Moorefield. When he witnessed the excitement of a minor championship final in 1996 he was hooked.
“I remember watching it in the stand and thinking: ‘Jesus I’d love to be there with them and I’ll go training the following year’.”
That he did and a minor was his, quickly followed by a couple of under-21 titles and then a club senior crown in 2000, on the back of a Leinster medal with Kildare in his debut season. In his first four years with the Lilies he played in three provincial finals, losing out twice, to Dublin in ‘02 and Laois in ’03. And that was his lot for the next five years.
“You never think you won’t get back there (to a Leinster final), if you think that you wouldn’t come back playing the last couple of years. I always think that there’s something there. Maybe there’s a difference between thinking it and believing it, there’s a lot more belief in each other this year, and it hasn’t been there in previous years.
It’s hard to know at the start of the year whether you believe it or you think you believe it, you don’t know until you’re in that situation when the time comes for championship.”
There are turning points and there are talking points. When Kildare squared up to Monaghan in the fourth round of the league the Farney men were blown away in the first half, Kildare kicking seven points in the opening 20 minutes. It was only 1-9 to 1-4 at the break after Tommy Freeman netted a debatable penalty for the home side. Midway through the second half Sweeney was slammed to the ground by the Monaghan keeper, the Kildare man blind to the challenge and laid out as a result. There was no penalty this time, not even a free. When Monaghan eventually drew level with five minutes to go Sweeney was on hand to score one of three late points that took Kildare over the winning line.
“I thought that game in general was a big game for us because the last two years Monaghan were coming good. We weren’t expected to get much out of that game. Previous Kildare games that I was on would have folded and lost by a point and we would have felt sorry for ourselves whereas this team is a bit different. We never panicked in that game and we were always confident that we were the better side on the day and even when they came back level we always knew we had more in is.”
Kildare were speaking with their actions now and when Laois asked them some awkward questions in the Leinster semi-final they turned another corner.
“I’d say Alan Smith’s goal against Laois was a real turning point because Laois had started so well. He should never have scored the goal really, I was standing outside and calling for it. I remember thinking at the time, that’s what we needed, let’s kick on from here and get the next score. I thought that was a turning point, maybe in years gone by we might have tried to stick that ball over the bar.”
Kildare can’t settle for points anymore, Sweeney knows that after six years away from a Leinster final. If they were going to achieve some goals they had to start scoring a few as well. He’s still young at 28 but he’s weary of moral victories after ten years in a white jersey
“The first four years I played in three Leinster finals and I lost two of them and at the time it didn’t really bother me which is kind of bad but you always think you have next year to make up for it. As the years pass you start to regret those things more and more.
“I love playing with Kildare and I love playing football and there’ll be a huge void in my life if it does come to an end. I want to make the most of what I have left, however long that is. I want to win more this year.”