Monday 10 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Anything can happen if you hang on

‘I think I’ve been in Newbridge once in my life, yet so profoundly stirring was Sunday’s comeback that by the end I too felt emotionally invested in what the club had achieved’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘I think I’ve been in Newbridge once in my life, yet so profoundly stirring was Sunday’s comeback that by the end I too felt emotionally invested in what the club had achieved’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Moorefield couldn't have looked much more beaten as the Leinster senior club football final entered injury-time this day last week. The Newbridge side had looked like losers once Ronan O'Toole's goal left St Loman's of Mullingar six points up with six minutes to play. As normal time ended there were still five points between the teams. Kildare's champions, it seemed, would spend the festive period mourning the loss of key players to suspensions and army duty. There would be five minutes of injury time.

In the first minute of injury time Moorefield centre half-back James Murray intercepted the ball on half-way. He surged forward, travelling 20 yards before meeting a defender who he rounded with ease. On he went. Everyone who's supported a losing team knows runs like this - madcap solo efforts born out of desperation which usually end up going nowhere. But Murray kept going and before the defenders converged upon him, fisted a superb pass to full-forward Ronan Sweeney on the right-hand edge of the square. Sweeney buried the ball in the net.

It's interesting to note how subdued the Moorefield celebrations are after the goal. They're less, 'wahey, we're back in it,' than, 'You'd never know.' But in the second minute of injury time they get a score which is almost as important. Eanna O'Connor's free is 45 yards out on the left wing on a pretty tough day for freetakers. If he misses it the comeback stalls and Lomans breath a sigh of relief. He nails it.

We're at that stage in a comeback when momentum seems like a kind of unstoppable natural phenomenon. Moorefield are coming in waves now and in the third minute of injury time they just run through the Loman's defence before O'Connor taps over a point to level things.

When you're caught late in a match like this it can be like one of those nightmares where you find yourself struggling with no hope of rescue. Loman's are panicked now; they have a player sent off and when Moorefield win a free 60 yards out one of their players throws the ball away and it's moved further in.

A 50-yarder for O'Connor to win it. But this time he doesn't nail it and your thought as it drifts towards the end line is that the ref will blow this one up after the wide is signalled and we'll have extra time. But there is Ronan Sweeney once more, using every inch of his 6ft 4in frame to knock the ball back across goal, where it falls into the hands of Moorefield corner-forward Kevin Murnaghan.

The odd thing is that you'd expect Murnaghan to turn and shoot in one frantic movement. Instead there's an almost finicky exactness and deliberation in the way he makes sure of the ball and pops it over the bar. It's as though in that instant time has slowed down for Murnaghan and everyone else. Six minutes and 20 seconds of injury time have elapsed. A few seconds later Moorefield are the Leinster champions. Where would you see the like of it?

It was a comeback to gladden the heart. Not least because of the central role played by Ronan Sweeney, who is 37 now, a man who at the very start of the millennium won a Leinster final with Kildare. Their victims that day were Dublin. The vast distance between the era in which Sweeney started his inter-county career and the one in which he plays on for Moorefield can be illustrated by the fact that when his Lilywhites lost to Dublin in the 2002 decider, it was a hugely emotional occasion for the Dubs because that was their first provincial title in seven years. It was a world where Dublin were underdogs and conventional wisdom was that 'the game badly needs the Dubs to win an All-Ireland.' Imagine.

Sweeney played inter-county football for over a decade and acquitted himself well. Yet he never became a household name in the way that Martin Lynch or Glenn Ryan or Johnny Doyle did. Better than the vast majority of footballers in the country, he nevertheless had one of those careers that passed under the radar to some extent. Like Alan O'Connor of Cork, Donal Daly of Kerry or Dublin's recently retired Dennis Bastick, he was a (non-villainous) Salieri rather than a Mozart.

The Kildare team he played on suffered more than its fair share of bad luck. A Benny Coulter goal that should have been disallowed cost them victory in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final against Down and a Tomas O'Connor goal that shouldn't have been disallowed, but was, saw them lose out to Donegal in the following year's quarter-final. Football history might have been very different had Kieran McGeeney's side been given fair play on either occasion. You'd imagine that when Sweeney looks back on his inter-county career a few might-have-beens nag at him.

And when his club lost last year's Kildare final to Sarsfields by four points, you wonder if he considered calling it a day. He was sent off that day with ten minutes left and the game still up for grabs. In recent years he'd gravitated towards coaching, helping out his old county team-mate Niall Carew at Sligo and Waterford before becoming a Kildare selector under Cian O'Neill this year. He turned 37 in 2017, an age when in the words of Leonard Cohen you "ache in the places where you used to play."

Sweeney opted to soldier on, although a suspension from the previous year saw him miss the first-round match where Moorefield started as they were to continue, rescuing a draw against underdogs Confey thanks to, believe it or not, two points in injury time. In the final against Celbridge he came on in the 20th minute as Moorefield made life tough for themselves once more, playing 40 minutes with 13 men after two sendings off before getting home by two points.

He was back in the starting line-up for the Leinster quarter-final against Portlaoise when Moorefield put their fans through the wringer again, trailing by three points with five minutes to go and winning with a superb point by Niall Hurley Lynch in the fourth minute of an injury time of almost unbearable tension. Has any provincial championship ever been harder won? Small wonder that the big man declared Sunday's result to be the best thing that had ever happened to him in football. There's something profoundly touching about that: two decades of effort and the very best wine turning up as the endgame looms.

He also claimed that the Leinster club football championship is the best competition in Ireland. Which might be hyperbole but does reflect the very special place the club championships occupy for those who take them into their hearts.

I think I've been in Newbridge once in my life, yet so profoundly stirring was Sunday's comeback that by the end I too felt emotionally invested in what the club had achieved. The club championship can do that to you. I could have identified a bit more with Loman's I suppose, but it was just too painful. I hope they win next year's competition.

Nothing in sport stirs us like a comeback against apparently impossible odds. Why is this? Perhaps because unless you're exceptionally lucky we've all had times in our lives when the forces ranged against us seem too great to confront and when the temptation is there just to surrender and throw your hat at it. We're behind and it doesn't seem possible to wipe out the gap before the final whistle.

So when we see a team coming back from the dead, plugging away when they could have given up and being rewarded for their gumption in doing so, it speaks to something deep within us. It persuades us that there's always a chance.

That's why Moorefield's win is the perfect sports story for this time of the year. It happened in the club championship, which is all about family and community celebrating together and revelling in each other's company as so many of us do every Christmas.

I hope you're all five or even ten points up as we head into the final stages of 2017. But if it feels like you're five points down on life, think of Moorefield coming back. Keep plugging away and things can not just turn around, they can turn around quicker than you imagined possible. Hang in there. You never know what might happen if you stick at it.

Happy Christmas.

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