GAA Football

"It's up to us to change Antrim's mentality": Mark Sweeney

Antrim forward Mark Sweeney says it is up to the players to change the mentality of the county setup. Picture by Seamus Loughran

THERE are millions of different soundtracks in the world, and over the last few years Mark Sweeney has explored a few of the more obscure ones.

A language spoken by 1.2 billion people might not be your idea of obscure, but for an Antrim footballer doing the commute from Dublin, learning Chinese via audiobook is not your average venture.

That was last year’s flame. He’s since moved on to a few podcasts on sports psychology, recommended through the GPA’s Jim Madden programme, though even the 29-year-old Actuary has his limits as to what is listenable.

“We have exams to do and you get audiobooks for that too. Though I must admit, the audiobooks for the studying, I listened to maybe 20 minutes and then threw them out because I was about to doze off.”

On a good night, with a decent run at the traffic, it’s a 90-minute spin each way from the south side of Dublin to Dunsilly for training.

Work took him there and he quite quickly transferred his club allegiances to St Jude’s, making the football that bit more manageable.

When they were beaten in the Dublin SFC semi-final this year – a game in which Sweeney was sent off – he and five clubmates took themselves off to New York for a few days.

“It was class to be away and leave football at home, but when you get back your mind’s fully refreshed too and you’re ready to get going again.

“I’d be a frantic enough person, I wouldn’t sit still for too long and that was enough for me. It’s each to their own; other people would be dying for a break into January.”

It’s not a long break he takes, but an important one. Over the last few seasons, he’s given his mind that breathing space between the end of the inter-county season and the end of the club season to decide whether he can keep juggling everything.

For the last couple of years in particular, there has been a decision to make, and times when he thought of making the other one.

“You have to be honest with yourself. At the end of the past two years, if you ask any of my close mates, for a couple of months after we were beaten in Championship I’m just not ready to commit because it is such a commitment.

“You get a wee bit of a taste of what it’s like to actually live in Dublin without having to travel up and down three times a week, and it’s good.

“But then you have that split from it for a couple of months and you realise you don’t want to do it for 12 months.

“Especially with a new manager coming in, there’s always that feeling that there’s going to be a shift in culture, perhaps, and a shift in fortunes.

“I’d probably be a sucker for when things start up and you’re convinced it’s going to be different, I get roped into that very easily.”

It helps that work is good. His boss at Willis Towers Watson, Conor O’Donovan, is a typically fervent Mayo supporter who comes back to work late each September as though he’d spent the previous week in a morgue.

The level of understanding there allows Sweeney to keep doing what he does, but he knows that goodwill can only ever last for so long.

“It’s something you have to consider. You put your life on hold down here. You really do have to ask a lot from work too and I’m very lucky that my boss is really supportive of helping me get my working hours around the travelling I need to do, letting me come in earlier and leave earlier.

“He’s been a legend about it. You can only really count on peoples’ generosity for so long though and at some point in your life, you have to start making steps forward in your career.

“It’s a big decision but if you’re able to balance it, which I’m doing ok at the minute, you might as well give it a crack.

”But there have been times in the past few years where it’s been getting too heavy at work and you can’t take any time out. All the managers to date have understood, said to take a few weeks, get your work in order and come back.

“As long as you keep the conversation channels open and honest, you put all your cards on the table, people will understand that you’re trying to juggle things and make them work, that you’re not trying to pull a fast one.”

Even in pre-pre-season he tries to make it up on a Thursday night, even though the players have been given fitness, weights and skills programmes to follow that he can manage from the capital.

And when he’s bit into the new season, it becomes hard to stop. There are times when he might consider taking a night off the travelling but it’s always in the back of the mind: do my team-mates think I’m bluffing?

”Lenny’s been straight saying that there’s no problem, just get stuff done down there and he’ll see us at the weekends. “Then again, other lads, Russ [Frank Fitzsimons] and Gearoid had said that, Baker had said that, but you feel like you’re missing out, like you’re letting lads down also just showing up at the weekend when they’ve been knocking their pan in collectively.

“You don’t really know if they appreciate the work you’re putting in so you put pressure on yourself to make the midweek sessions. If you can make it work, it’s class to be able to do it.”

The St Brigid’s native speaks highly of his past managers, labelling Fitzsimons, Adams and Pat Hughes “an absolute bunch of Antrim legends”, but that doesn’t mean that their worlds were perfect.

A big turnover of key players from one year to the next hampered their attempts to stay up in Division Three, though the manner of their relegation on points difference was particularly hard to take.

Some things were beyond the control of the outgoing crew, and some weren’t.

**

WHEN he met with Harbinson about staying in the fold, Sweeney was collared by the former St Gall’s boss’s willingness to delegate above all.

“I’d be straight, last year and the year before, with all the good intentions and good relationships were built up – I have to say straight up, Gearoid, Russ and Pat Hughes, an absolute bunch of Antrim legends - there’s no two ways about it, they weren’t supported enough perhaps in putting the structures in place for us to reach our potential as a team.

“That’s both on and off the pitch. It’s like Groundhog Day, it happened a few years in a row.

“When I sat down and spoke to Lenny, one of the first things he spoke about to the players was the people he’d surround himself with – the delegation of responsibility to people that are experts in their field, and bringing us to the bare minimum of expectations for a county team with aspirations to do well in Ulster.

“That’s all we wanted as a group of players. The county board have been incredibly supportive of Lenny to date, I know that for a fact.

“This year, even though we’re only six weeks in, there’s a shift in culture and it’s a reflection of the leadership the lads have brought from the top.

“There’s a shift in culture within the players’ attitudes. But you only get proof of that when you’re faced with challenging times, when the losses set in. Let’s see if we can keep that positive energy going.”

The bare minimum of expectations is something he is plenty familiar with having been involved with one of the heavy hitters in Dublin club football.

They’ve reached the championship semi-final five times in the last six years without ever reaching a final, but in the crazily competitive universe they exist in, there is very little shame to be attached.

When they train at Abbottstown, they would see Ballyboden, St Vincent’s and St Brigid’s all using the facilities as well at different times.

“It’s mind-blowing at times, the finances they have first of all. They’re running around with their GPS systems on and their management teams maybe 15 deep, lads standing with laptops on the sideline. It’s mind-blowing the level it’s got to.

“We had the GPS systems [with Antrim] in the past but whether or not we had the right people analysing them is another thing. That’s maybe more important than the system itself, what you’re going to do with the data it gives you.

“That’s why I’d be sceptical of club teams using them – have they spent all their money getting these systems rather than someone who can analyse what the data says?

“Maybe 6 or 8 of the Dublin clubs are on a par, of in excess of, your Division Two, Three and Four teams, as a broad brush.”

Kevin McManamon is his highest profile team-mate, and while the goalscoring hero of the 2011 All-Ireland final is a tough nut to crack for information, Sweeney can’t help but be inspired.

“All these lads are playing for Dublin, they’re in such a high performance environment and then they’re coming back to their clubs.

“Even though they wouldn’t give any secrets away, they’re setting standards at the same standard that are upheld in the Dublin camp. And it’s so infectious.

“That’s why so many of the clubs are trying to be mini-Dublin setups, even in terms of their tactics.

“Kev’s incredible. There’s no point jarring him for secrets. But when he comes back, he’s just a leader. When he talks, people listen, and he’s very calculated in what he says and his actions, without being manipulative.

“The aim for everyone is to be a mirror image of how he conducts himself in that team environment, and how he trains outside of it. They’re the ultimate professionals. I know that’s a bit of a paradox in the GAA world, but they are.”

That’s the bar and, for many reasons, Antrim are a fair way shy of it. But Mark Sweeney has been impressed, like so many, by the work done by the county board since the Saffron Vision group took charge.

The players will never break the financial or off-field barriers down themselves, but he knows that there are bricks that they can start to build with too.

“I think there’s serious good work going on in Antrim at the minute and you can only look forward. There’s just so much energy to see Antrim do well.

“It’s not even about our generation, it’s the next one that comes through. It’s up to us and our generation to start to change the culture and mentality.

“You can do that without finance, and hopefully when you change that culture you start winning a wee bit more.

“When you start winning a wee bit more, people are more keen to back you with finance. It’s a domino effect.”

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