AFFABLE and unconventional, ambitious although rueful: his could be the story of Kildare. Often to the brink, never broken.
For a life mostly dedicated to the pursuit of Gaelic football, roots are tangled.
Stella Maris, incubators of teenage soccer dreams, shepherded 13 players cross-channel for professional careers of varying distinction during a rich harvest in the late 1990s. Keith Andrews and Richie Partridge were among that bunch, names that still carry weight in a world where Ronan Sweeney’s has been long forgotten.
When he pitches up in a Kildare tracksuit, Sweeney could still pass for a member of the playing panel. On match day he roams, the link man between management and players, his features unmistakeable but never out of place when he orbits a world that was intimate to him for 14 seasons.
Once Ronan Sweeney morphed into a county player at the turn of the century, football became him. During that magical year of 2000, in which Kildare won Leinster by beating Dublin in a quixotic final, he discovered a new identity. Even now, four years after signing his release papers, he feels the same pulse and beat.
“Football is a huge part of my life,” Sweeney summarises. “And it’s really who I am.”
Sprinting across the pitch, carrying messages on his lips, a water bottle provides cover for encroachment. A shaven-headed maor foirne frequent in our midst, only now his feet do not move so fast.
Sweeney reasons: “I remember someone saying that to me before: ‘Try to find something you really enjoy and stick with it and stay passionate about it.’ I can’t play anymore to the level I want to so the coaching is the next best thing.”
Sunday’s Leinster Final will be Sweeney’s fifth experience of the occasion but his first as coach. With Dublin as opponents, it is only natural to think of 2000, and the beginning of his great odyssey in white.
“I remember getting the bus from Waterford to training for the first time on a Tuesday,” he recalls, a student of architecture in Waterford IT at the time. “The league had already started. We played Down in the first game and Derry was the second game I was surprised to be in the panel on the Sunday and then all of a sudden, Mick O’Dwyer says to me: ‘You’re coming on!’
“I wasn’t sure that he even knew my name… That’s the way O’Dwyer was. If he saw any promise at all, he threw you in, gave you a chance. I came on with about 25 minutes to go against Derry and played okay. I was in the team quite consistently after that for the season.”
Sweeney replays that breakthrough season, flicking through the reel until his mind settles. Paused, he lingers at the scene:
“My fondest memory is running around the pitch with the trophy. It was quite an unbelievable experience. It was surreal. I remember Glenn [Ryan] on the pitch, the Hogan Stand was being done up. I remember when he was speaking and all the white in the crowd and surrounding the podium…”
He halters, fingering a regret: “You’d love to see that type of support coming back into the county but I suppose it has been difficult to shout too loudly with Dublin’s dominance”
Current manager Cian O’Neill is Sweeney’s Moorefield clubmate. Kildare, in their second season under O’Neill, will play their first Leinster final in eight years this Sunday. So the hope that followed 2000 may seem fanciful now.
There was every reason to believe those barren years would be laden with silverware. Almost to a man, Sweeney’s predecessors came and went unburdened. In Millennium year, there was a sweetness throughout Kildare. Those supporters’ painted faces no longer bore the colour of resignation.
“You think it’s going to happen every year,” Sweeney says of that Leinster success. “Even ’02, we were there in the final and should have won that. ’03 as well against Laois, we had opportunities there.”
Between 1998 and 2003, Kildare contested four finals, winning two of them, and then losing narrowly in successive years. Sweeney was one from three but subsequent seasons merely gathered moss. It took until 2009 to lay the next wager. Dublin again, and once more grief.
“We should have won that game,” says Sweeney. “We were against 14 men and should have seen it out. We should have used our extra man better. We should have been more clinical with our opportunities. Small moments in standout games: Donegal (2011), Down (2010) and the two Dublin games around that period. The ones that really stand out are the ’09 Leinster Final and the Donegal game. They’re the ones that we really should have got over the line and could have had a major impact on Kildare football.”
Those failures are still hard to reconcile: “People often point to poor refereeing decisions in some of those games but ultimately it was poor execution on our part at vital moments in the game. Small moments in those games… Even that Donegal game, we could have won that game in normal time, never mind being three up in extra time. I remember clearly they had turned the ball over and we were two on two inside with huge space and it was just a poor execution of a kick pass, a really simple kick pass that probably nobody else will remember but I still remember! That’s where the Kerrys and Dublins have been so successful, that pass at pressure moments is always nailed.
“That’s where we’re trying to get to. Small things done brilliantly. Nobody will notice and nobody will mention them.”
Except men like Ronan Sweeney. Brooding can be reductive when a life’s work is so distilled it starts to evaporate.
The white brigade has come again. Another Leinster final approaches. Again, Dublin, now two in a row champions of Ireland. What of Kildare in this new climate?
“We’re certainly very, very wary because they’re capable of producing performances that are unstoppable. But they’re also human and can make mistakes like everyone else. We’re realists as well. We know we have to really perform to compete with these guys and that’s a good thing. You have to know where you’re at first in order to really know what way to approach any game.”
When Sweeney started phase two of this journey, invoking Dublin was not part on the agenda. Ground work was priority.
Sweeney notes: “There was a huge disconnect between supporters and the team over the last number of years and that was something that we wanted to change.”
By we, he means players and management. He continues: “Last year, things didn’t work out but we were missing a lot of players and a lot of our attacking players too. It was a conscious decision that we were going to go and play to our strengths. We are an attack-minded county and I think players enjoy playing with that bit of freedom to express themselves.”
There seems an innocence about this talk, though naivety is not father to such notions: “We were averaging over 21 points in the league. Every team wants to be playing that way. Now it’s not always going to be like that. We’re trying to do the right thing, trying to play the right way.”
There is substance in the numbers. At one end, totals of 1-21 and 2-16. At the other end, liabilities of 1-7 and 0-13. Kildare have maximised return.
Himself a sole trader since 2015, Sweeney appreciates those margins. The decision to set his own stall as an architect technician was natural evolution for a man of ambition, although it was football that finally prompted the move.
“In my previous job, my employer was brilliant through my playing career, but to go and coach in Sligo would have been a step too far in terms of the time required to put into it so I decided to set up my own business,” he says.
After serving with Niall Carew for one season in Waterford, Sweeney moved west with his old mentor. To pursue coaching required a flexible schedule. Working for himself was the only way to juggle family, football and work.
“Hectic is the only way to describe it,” he says. “Every day and every week, there’s always something that has to give and more often it’s sleep or work. I end up catching up on things. You’d often find me working until 3am in order to fit everything in.”
He is content to burn oil for the freedom it brings.
“To work from a home office as well is perfect because you can drop everything at five o’clock and spend time with the family which is very important to me,” says the father of three. Jackie, his wife, is expecting again in August. By then, Cameron should know the results of his Leaving Certificate, and the girls – Summer, 4, and Erin, 2 – can coo-coo the new baby.
Says Daddy: “Kids are brilliant. They keep you young.”
Jackie too has been an inspiration. Her husband says: “This year, I had decided I wasn’t going to play for Moorefield again because it was gone beyond a joke, how much time I was being out of the house, and also injuries are catching up. Jackie was the one who said: ‘You may go back and try to give it another go if you can at all.’ I said: ‘Right, I will.’ It’s very difficult to manage but I still love playing more than anything.”
Three weeks ago, he played a first half for Moorefield in the league, bagging 1-3, then dashing to Dublin to see Sunday’s opposition destroy Westmeath. He could be deterred only he still sees football from the inside and the current crop measure favourably with his generation: “The biggest similarity for me is the camaraderie within the group. That went a long way to getting us to those games where we were competing. We made progress by the group being comfortable with each other, being honest in how we prepared and knowing everyone is going the one direction. I see those same traits in this group too”
Sweeney senses that special appeal. His summary is telling:
“There’s nothing like seeing the white jersey, it stirs something up in you. It’s in the blood now at this stage.”
Ronan Sweeney was speaking to Brendan Coffey, you can find Brendan on Twitter @coffeybrendan