IT’S approaching the 20th anniversary of Kildare’s last Leinster Championship win, that famous day when a brace of goals early in the second half turned the game against Dublin on its head and made Pat Spillane’s half time analysis look rather silly indeed.
If you told any Kildare supporter leaving Croke Park that day in August 2000 that they would fail to win another piece of silverware for 20 years and more, and fail to beat Dublin in a competitive game during that time as well, they would have thought you were mad.
It would have been similar for the players, certainly for Ronan Sweeney.
He was just 19 at the time of that win and although a little unsure of how exactly he found himself in Croke Park that day, he assumed that it would always be like that.
Don’t forget up to a couple of years previously, if Sweeney was going to make his name in any sport it looked like it would be soccer. In the early stages of Micko’s second spell, it would have been more likely that Sweeney could have ran out at Parkhead with his Celtic heroes than his home county but he enjoyed a meteoric rise within GAA circles.
Success at underage level with Moorefield caught the eye of the Kildare selectors and he was called in for training late in 1999. After just a couple of weeks training, even to his own surprise, he was named in the squad for a league game in Newbridge against Derry in November of that year.
“It was incredible really. It was such a different time. These days it’s very unusual to be playing on development squads and not make your way on to the senior set up. I was playing soccer only until I was about 17, then we won that minor with Moorefield in ‘97, the U21 in ‘97 and ‘98 and then I was in for trials in ‘99.
“I remember going to train and they had already played a League game. I trained twice with the group and there was a match coming up against Derry. I wasn’t even expecting to be on the panel but I was named on the squad,” said Sweeney.
Micko was never too concerned about results in the league and saw those games as an ideal time to blood some youngsters and see who might be able to make the step up to Championship football so it was an experimental team that took to the field that day. Ivan Keatley and Pat Winders were talented players but didn’t feature too often afterwards, for Mark Millham it was his one and only appearance in a Kildare jersey. A certain Johnny Doyle had a slightly longer Kildare career but at that stage was an unheralded youngster and playing just his second inter-county game.
Sweeney started on the bench but it wasn’t long before Micko gave him the call and cut short Millham’s debut.
“After about 25 minutes of that match, Micko says to me ‘Ronan you’re going on’. I hardly even knew anybody!
“Newbridge was absolutely packed because there was such an interest in Kildare football at that time and I just found myself there. I just said I’d do my own thing and run around, which I was quite good at at that time.
“In fairness to Micko, he wasn’t afraid to give fellas a chance and he really used to League to see what fellas were made of. He just gave me a go and fortunately he trusted me which was great,” said Sweeney.
It didn’t take Sweeney long to make his mark and he caught the eye immediately of the Kildare Nationalist reporter at the game. ‘With a gallant Pat Winders running out of midfield steam it fell on the broad shoulders of Sweeney to pick up the slack. The big Moorefield lad strove mightily and even managed a couple of shots on goal’ wrote the report at the time.
While some of the new faces on the pitch that day faded from view as that season progressed, Sweeney became more prominent and he remembers it as a wonderful learning curve.
“It was amazing to be in that dressing room and I learned so much from those guys, especially the leaders there. Lads like Glenn Ryan, he was a sensational leader. I never seen anything like him, before or since. Just his standards in preparation, he was so straight and accepted no shit in training. If people weren’t doing it he would tell them and he didn’t care who it was. That’s so refreshing because it’s often not done, even though it sounds like it should be. He had a great way of doing it, a bit like that Michael Jordan documentary, he’d the first person doing it himself and leading the way, he really was a great leader,” said Sweeney.
By the time Championship came around in the summer of 2000, Sweeney was on the bench but still clearly to the forefront of Micko’s thoughts. He came on as a sub in the quarter-final win over Louth and the semi-final draw against Offaly before making his first Championship start in the replay win.
He held on to his starting jersey for the two final games against Dublin and played his part in that famous win.
“The whole time was unbelievable and to win it the way we did was amazing. It feels like a different lifetime to be honest. What it did for the county and to be involved in that was incredible.
“I was lucky really to be there. It was an established team really with just a spot there that a few of us were fighting for and I was lucky enough to get in. I’m grateful for it now because back then I thought we’d be there every year, or every second year at least and would finally get over the line and win an All-Ireland.
“I was walking around with eyes wide open, like a big child, I just couldn’t believe this thing. The more established lads were taking it in their stride because they were probably used to it from ‘98 but I can remember the civic reception in the Naas, it was amazing. I have to say though, I was thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I didn’t feel like I belonged there. I was only 19 so I was just letting everybody else lead the way and I was just following,” said Sweeney.
The glory days that Sweeney and the county were expecting to follow never materialised and looking back now, he feels that Leinster final defeats in 2002, against Dublin, and 2003, against Laois, did untold damage to the team.
“Those two finals in 2002 and 2003 are sickening now, I’d still often think of them. There was a thing there going around social media a while ago about the 2003 game and…Jesus Christ, the chances we missed, the silly mistakes we made even though I know we were down numbers. We should have won both games, really should have won them.
“If we had, and it’s all ifs and buts, but if we had both those finals, which we certainly had in our grasp, what that could have done for Kildare football just to get that sense of belief into the county. To win that many Leinsters in such a short space of time, it would given a real sense that we belonged at the top table but when we got those two knockbacks in the finals and then went out in the Qualifiers tamely enough in both years to Roscommon and Kerry it just put us back a lot,” said Sweeney.
By 2003, Padraig Nolan had replaced Micko in the Kildare hot seat but his tenure, and the two years under John Crofton that followed him, were a transitional period for the Kildare team and it was only after the arrival of Kieran McGeeney in late 2007 that the players began to believe they compete with the best teams around.
And compete they did. They might not have the silverware their efforts during McGeeney’s six years deserved but they came mightily close and really, were as good as any team team in the country during that time.
“There’s a big regret about that era because we put a huge amount into it. I was still a young fella when Micko was there but it was the first time since then that we believed we were good enough to win an All-Ireland.
“In between Micko and Geezer you’d be embarrassed to even say it because we were a good bit off it really. It was only really in 2009 that we started to actually believe again that we could do it, and that we had the group capable of competing with the top teams.
“In fairness to Kieran, he brought that belief to the group. He taught us a lot, taught me a lot anyway, about goal setting – short term goal setting, long term goal setting. Each year I would set out, and we would as a group, what we wanted to achieve. Jesus, we were close to it but ultimately we didn’t didn’t do it,” said Sweeney.
It’s a era that causes some conflict within Sweeney. He is a winner and the squad’s failure to win even a Leinster title, never mind their ultimate goal of an All-Ireland title, means that he can see the viewpoint of some who say McGeeney’s time was a failure. But having been in that group, Sweeney saw first hand the effort that was put in and is happy to look back and say they couldn’t have done any more.
“I know a lot of people outside the group would snigger and say we didn’t win anything so we didn’t achieve anything. That’s true but I still don’t walk away from the thing thinking it was a failure because 99% of the group were going in the one direction – in terms of preparation, in terms of how we lived, in terms of what we wanted to do, in terms of respect in the group, all that kind of stuff. We were like that for about four or five years and that is hard to get into a group. You’re nearly half satisfied that you couldn’t have done anymore. You walk away having not achieved what you want to do but once you can say you tried your best, and knowing that, what more can you do.
“I’ve so many great friends that I would have played with during that time and we still keep in contact, which is difficult because you play with so many people down through the years between club and county, for a group to stay so tight is probably unusual,” said Sweeney.
And by God, they came close. There are four games that particularly stand out for Sweeney, games that Kildare lost but they could and, in some cases, should have won. He’s not one for bemoaning luck or referee’s decisions but there were so many fine margins that just went against Kildare.
“The Donegal game (2011) is the one that sent us one way and sent them the other way. I don’t want to say about referees or say that we were unlucky but things could really have went the other way so easily, it’s just all about inches.
“These were all things in our control, I’m not blaming anybody but ourselves. Donegal in 2011, in 2009, Dublin and Tyrone, both games were completely in our grasp and we were ahead at half time. Down (All-Ireland semi-final) in 2010, to let them get that sort of lead was unacceptable. They are the four games that stand out for me.
A win in just one of those big games could have made such a difference to the team.
“I saw it so often with Moorefield, we were able to grind out those sort of games, like that Kildare versus Dublin one in 2009. If Moorefield were in a similar sort of game they probably would have been able to grind that out because we were used to being in those situations. When you are second and trying to get up the ladder it’s like trying to get a first pull up, you are just trying to pull yourself up and get your chin over the bar for the first time and then it becomes easy the next time.
“People outside the group might have said we were soft or whatever but I don’t believe that. There were some really top guys there that wouldn’t shy away from anything, and it was the same during Cian’s time. It’s just so hard to get over that line once and sometimes you do need a bit of luck.
“Going back to 2000 with Moorefield, we were really nervous the day of the final, really nervous. It started off bucketing rain and we were playing with the wind and got two goals early on, Cian O’Neill and Brian McGrogan with two of the scrappiest goals you’d every see. They were lucky goals but they gave us a sense that we could do this and it just relaxed us into the game. During that time with Kildare, we never really got that kind of break which could have helped us get over the line,” said Sweeney.
By 2013, injuries were hampering Sweeney and he made the call to finish his inter-county career before the decision was made to remove McGeeney from his post. Like many who soldiered under the Armagh man, Sweeney still feels the decision to remove him from his position was a dark day for Kildare GAA.
Although that was the end of another chapter in Sweeney’s career he was about to embark on a wonderful journey with Moorefield that we detailed in last week’s paper and ended with him as Kildare GAA’s most decorated footballer.