chalk it down

'I just remember running over to the ball thinking, ‘I have to kick this over. I am going to kick it over''

Conor Sweeney relives his glorious last-second equaliser against Limerick.

WE MIGHT AS well start with that last-gasp free from the sideline. 

conor-sweeney-takes-a-free Tipperary's Conor Sweeney scores a free to force extra-time against Limerick. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

At the death of normal time in the Munster SFC quarter-final against Limerick, Tipperary captain Conor Sweeney did his best Maurice Fitzgerald impression to force extra-time.

The execution of the strike, added to the weather conditions, the time on the clock and the knock-out element, meant Sweeney has probably already sealed the score of the 2020 season award. 

“I didn’t really have much time to think about it, to be honest with you,” he recalls.

“When I knew the ref had blown the whistle for the free, I said to myself I can kick this, I can put this over. 

“The conditions were actually favourable for me. I don’t know was that evident on the television. The breeze was at my back and I was confident. Look, I had to kick it, there was no two ways about it. 

“It was literally the last play of the game so I knew I had to put it over. I had kicked a few points throughout the game. I just felt confident and I backed myself and that was it, really.

“I just remember running over to the ball, thinking ‘I have to kick this over. I am going to be able to kick it over.’ 

“I just remember Michael Quinlivan being on the floor – I think he was injured. He asked me did I want him to take it, and I was like, ‘No, not a hope boy! Stay where you are!’

“And after that it was straight to the process and, yeah, the rest is history then. You kind of block everything out, to be honest with you. I’m so used to taking frees now, you just kind of get used to your routine and it’s important you stick to them in those moments.

“I was thinking to myself on the way home, ‘Jesus, wouldn’t that have been a great free to win a match’. But then I realised the stakes were actually higher to draw the match because if I missed that we were gone. Whereas if it was to win the game and I missed it, you’re still in the game.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation like that where the stakes were so high.”

A Brian Fox winner in extra-time sent Tipperary into the provincial final, just their fifth in the last 75 years and their first since 2016.

tommie-childs-dejected-at-the-end-of-the-game Limerick's Tommie Childs dejected at the end of the game. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

That summer four years ago saw Tipperary enjoy a thrilling run to All-Ireland semi-final under Liam Kearns. With a young, emerging team they didn’t push on quite like they’d have hoped.

“I think our results would show that, yeah for sure,” admits Sweeney.

“But you have to be realistic as well, we’re never going to get to an All-Ireland semi-final or Munster final every year. It’s just not feasible with the teams we’re coming up against. But I would agree that we hoped to kick on in 2017.

“Listen, we got league success, we won Division 3 in 2017 which was great and we were actually a kick of a ball from going up to Division 1 the following year. There’s fine margins there but we definitely didn’t kick on in Munster.

“If we were to make progress after ’16 you’d surely hope to be looking at at least another one or two provincial appearances but it just hasn’t happened. But we’ve a chance to rectify it this year and if we get the job done it will more than make up for it.

“I certainly would have liked to have competed in more [Munster finals], that’s for sure. I think it’s one of every player’s main goals, to get to your provincial final. It just hasn’t happened.

“2016 was my first one, this is only my second one, and I’m around a long time. I just really hope we can give a good account of ourselves this time around. I think we under-performed majorly the last time which was very disappointing.

conor-sweeney-and-peter-acheson-celebrate Conor Sweeney and Peter Acheson celebrate after the Premier reached the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“But it’s always been a goal of mine to win a Munster championship, and hopefully I can make that happen this time around.”

And whatever way you look at it, Cork’s shock win over Kerry has provided Tipperary with a golden opportunity for provincial success. While Sweeney fancied the Kingdom to come through their semi-final, he wasn’t “overly shocked” that Cork were the ones to progress.

Sweeney’s mother hails from the Rebel County and he recalls attending several Cork-Kerry clashes during his youth at a time when Tipperary football wasn’t quite on his radar.

“To be honest, I don’t have much of a recollection of Tipperary football or very little. I would have gone to a lot of Cork/Kerry games when I was a young fellow as my uncle was a mad Corkman. 

“My mother is from Cork. We are living on the border a couple of minutes away from Mitcelstown. Unfortunately,” he adds with a smile. 

“My mother is probably my biggest supporter, she is probably one of the biggest Tipperary supporters, both my parents are. They will only be shouting for one team, thank God.

“My uncle was a mad football man but he was also mad about me and mad about Tipperary so there will only be one team they will all be shouting for on Sunday week, thanks be to God.”

The Premier are familiar with Cork, having clashed with them regularly in league and championship over the years. 

“We were probably always going to be underdogs which is fine, we’re okay with that. I just think the fact we’ve been playing Cork more regularly, we’ve been in the same league divisions as them in recent years so I think you’d take a little bit of confidence from that knowing we can compete with them.

“We’re going to have to be at our best, there’s no doubt about it, and an under-par performance like the first 35 minutes the last day just won’t do. That’s the bottom line. That happens us too much.

“We tend to underperform for periods of matches and we’re going to get caught out at some stage. If we’re to compete with Cork we’re going to have to be on it from the word go and nothing less than a great performance will do.”

He’s around long enough to recognise the importance of taking this opportunity to put Tipperary football back in the limelight, given the prominence of hurling in the county. 

“Young players coming up, they need to see us playing in top divisions, they need to see us playing against good teams, they need to see us playing on the television, they need to see us winning and enjoying it.

“I think if we can bring that to the fore this year and over the next couple of years, I think football will be in a good place because we have to compete with the hurlers. That is the bottom line. That is the way it is and that is the way it will be.

“If we all do our little bit as can all keep Tipperary in a good place because we have made great strides over the years. We have won titles at minor and U21, it is time to deliver for senior and now is as good a time as any.

“It is fantastic for young lads to see us involved in a Munster final and hopefully it won’t be the last for the next few years.”  

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