Thursday 23 November 2017

Premier scoring sensation Sweeney making most of 'black card' freedom

Conor Sweeney has blossomed in the full-forward for Tipperary this season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Conor Sweeney has blossomed in the full-forward for Tipperary this season. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

John Evans remembers walking into the family farm in Ballyporeen to personally recruit him, but it is only this season that Tipperary's Conor Sweeney has underlined why.

It is not unusual, given the standard of defending in lower orders, for Division 4 footballers to figure highly on the scoring charts at the end of the Allianz League.

Longford's Sean McCormack regularly features in the top five across all four divisions and was third this year behind Derry's reborn centre-forward Mark Lynch in a list that included such luminaries as Colm McFadden, Colm McManus and James O'Donoghue.

But what was particularly unusual was that Division 4 champions Tipperary had two men in the top four and that it was 6' 3" left-footer Sweeney, not Barry Grogan (5-26), who topped it with a whopping 6-49.

Grogan has long been regarded as the natural successor to Tipp's legendary All Star Declan Browne.

But it is Sweeney who has been Tipp's ace card this year, shooting the lights out in their romp to a Division 4 league final against Clare.

His only previous experience in Croke Park was an All-Ireland qualifier drubbing by Dublin in 2010.

But, on his second visit, he chipped in 1-8 (1-4 from play), winning the man-of-the-match trophy while insisting: "I was just in the right place at the right time."

Sweeney was part of the team that made Tipp's recent football breakthrough by beating Kerry to win their first Munster U-21 title in 2010.

Evans, now managing Roscommon, but then masterminding Tipp's football revolution as well as managing that U-21 team, knew immediately that Sweeney, who had already captained the county minors, had serious potential.

"I could see he was a good bit of talent, but Conor was playing a bit of hurling and soccer and I think he felt that hurling was the way to go, so I had to do a bit of convincing," he reveals of providing the nudge in football's direction.

Sweeney was a versatile teenager, who captained Rockwell College's senior rugby team from out-half.

When he went to UCC he initially played rugby before joining their football panel, and being coached by Billy Morgan and playing in the team that lost the 2013 Sigerson final to DIT also played a key role in his football education.

"When you're playing Division 4 and 3 you lose out if you don't get involved in college football where the pace and the skill level is so high," recalled Evans.

"Conor was very tall and skinny when he was younger, but he's after filling out now.

"But even when he was a teenager he was doing for his club what he's now doing for Tipperary."

The family live close to the Cork border where his dad Michael is chairman of Ballyporeen and last summer, after several close calls, Conor helped them to finally win a Tipperary intermediate title.

One seasoned observer of Tipp football reckons there is another reason why the substitute teacher was the highest scorer in the country in this year's league – the introduction of black cards.

He reckons Sweeney's previously light, gangly frame was too often rough-housed and contained by cynical corner-forwards whose dark arts can no longer thrive under the new rules.

Whatever the reason, he has definitely blossomed this year and today lines out in a particularly talented Tipp full-forward line who face Limerick in their provincial opener.

Tipp haven't won a Munster SFC game in 11 years and have lost their last three meetings with the Shannonsiders (2009, 2008 and 2004).

From that 2010 Munster U-21 winning team Sweeney, Peter Acheson and Ciaran McDonald start. From their brilliant All-Ireland winning minor side of 2011 – who lost Liam McGrath to the county senior hurlers – their starting 15 includes Colin O'Riordan, Steven O'Brien, Ian Fahey and Michael Quinlivan.

Peter Creedon's team are now such a healthy blend of experience and successful underage footballers that they are surely on the cusp of ending that Munster famine.

Irish Independent

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