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'To rip the team apart and leave the club in tatters like that, it was disgusting to see'

Cork City’s last FAI Cup decider turned out to be Leon McSweeney’s final game for the club.
Nov 7th 2015, 12:00 PM 13,401 3

IT WOULD BE easy for Leon McSweeney to say he saw it coming down the tracks and got out as soon as he could.

Within six months of his move from Cork City to Stockport County in December 2007, McSweeney had played at Wembley as his new club secured promotion to League One. Back in Cork, his former colleagues’ wages had stopped appearing in their bank accounts while they played for a club that was about to enter examinership.

PA-5986245 Rochdale's Adam Rundle under pressure from Stockport County's Irish duo Anthony Pilkington and Leon McSweeney during the 2007-08 League Two play-off final at Wembley. Source: Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport

Hindsight has taught McSweeney that leaving for England was a wise decision, but initially it wasn’t what he wanted. Helping his hometown club to win the FAI Cup for the second time in their history had merely served to strengthen his desire to stay on Leeside.

He had only been at home for six months, having spent the previous six years in England, and it felt like an exciting time to be a Cork City player too. The club had just been taken over by ambitious new owners, and while there was some scepticism about their intentions, McSweeney was curious as to how it would all unfold.

Fortunately for him, however, he never got the opportunity to find out. He didn’t know it at the time, but Cork City’s 1-0 defeat of Longford Town in the 2007 FAI Cup final at the RDS on 2 December would be his last game for the club. Twelve days later, he was a Stockport County player.

* * *

“I was absolutely over the moon to be back at Cork City that season,” says Leon McSweeney. “That dressing room was probably the best I’ve been involved in throughout my career. There could be eight or nine of us going for lunch after training or for a pint at the weekend. It was a really close-knit group and that’s not very common in football.”

McSweeney returned to Cork City for his second spell with the club in the summer of 2007. Still a teenager, he had left in 2001 after being offered a contract with Leicester City. It didn’t work out there, however, and although he was released a couple of years later, McSweeney opted to stay in England.

inpho_00237247 Leon McSweeney in action for Cork City against St Patrick's Athletic at Richmond Park in July 2007. Source: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

He pursued a sports management degree at Loughborough University and football wasn’t completely pushed to the side either. While furthering his education, McSweeney played for four years at non-league level. The highlight of that spell was Conference North title success with Hucknall Town in 2004.

After he graduated in 2007, McSweeney made his way back home and left a good enough impression on Cork City manager Damien Richardson during a trial to be offered a short-term deal with the club. Operating mostly as a right-winger, it wasn’t long before McSweeney was a regular member of the starting line-up.

Cork City had been crowned Premier Division champions just 18 months before McSweeney’s return, and while they were still one of the top teams in the country, the likes of Drogheda United, St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians had overtaken them in the meantime — as evidenced by their fourth-place finish in the 2007 season.

The loss of key players like Alan Bennett, Danny Murphy, George O’Callaghan and Roy O’Donovan was largely responsible, but a significant proportion of City supporters directed the blame at Richardson. That’s something the club’s new owners were aware of when they assumed control towards the end of the campaign.

Arkaga, a venture capital firm, had taken over from previous owner Brian Lennox. A new stadium, improved training facilities and an increased budget for players were all part of their plans. Damien Richardson wasn’t.

‘Rico’ would bring City their first FAI Cup title in nine years at the climax of the season, but his fate was sealed before a ball was even kicked in the final. A fortnight after that victory, he reluctantly departed after ‘a mutual agreement’ was reached with the owners.

inpho_00260616 The Cork City team that started the 2007 FAI Cup final, with manager Damien Richardson. Source: INPHO/Andrew Paton

The victory over Longford Town in the final secured the silverware for Cork City. However, the biggest win of that cup run had happened five weeks earlier at Dalymount Park. Liam Kearney scored both goals, but that was the night when Leon McSweeney really proved his worth.

Aged 24 at the time, McSweeney turned in a man-of-the-match performance, tormenting Bohemians on the right flank throughout a 2-0 win for Cork City in front of the RTÉ cameras, as the visitors booked their place in the decider.  It was his best performance of the season and Damien Richardson was instrumental in it.

McSweeney: “That game was a fantastic experience. The eyes of the country are on you, it was live on telly. Damien Richardson was huge for me then. I remember him just making me feel ten feet tall before I went out on to the pitch.

“With the psychology he used to put across to his players, he was worth his weight in gold. I benefited so much from that. My performance in that semi-final, a lot of it was down to him.

“He was very popular. I can only speak for myself. I’ve played under a lot of managers but looking back, in terms of man-management, no one I ever worked with could touch him. He worked wonders for my self-belief. I never got the opportunity to thank him because you don’t realise it at that stage, but it was a fantastic bit of management. And it wasn’t just me he did it to either. He made you feel like you could take on the world.”

Between the semi-final and the final, the presence of Arkaga began to increase, although little was still known about the owners. The players were kept up to date by the local media, who reported that the new men in charge were making projections for unprecedented levels of growth for a League of Ireland club.

“Cork City is such a big club that it was the big story in the papers for a while then, so it was always in our faces,” McSweeney explains. “It was obviously going to filter through to the dressing room and nobody was quite sure what it was going to mean for us all, but we were always able to focus on the task at hand when it came to game-time and we were very determined that, no matter what, we were going to win the cup for ourselves.”

Nevertheless, the warning signs were there.

inpho_00260640 Leon McSweeney tussles with Longford Town's Sean Prunty during the 2007 FAI Cup final. Source: INPHO/Andrew Paton

“The money they were handing out was crazy. There were things in people’s contracts regarding goal bonuses and clean-sheet bonuses, which for a League of Ireland club was never likely to end well. It was unsustainable.”

As the FAI Cup final approached, there was increasing uncertainty surrounding the future of Damien Richardson and some of his players — 11 of whom would be out of contract as soon as the final whistle sounded. The manager told the press that it had unsettled his squad in the build-up to the game. McSweeney was one of them.

The short-term deal he had signed in the summer was basic, but he felt he had performed well enough since his arrival to warrant a contract that matched what his colleagues in the first-team had been given previously. To McSweeney’s surprise, the owners disagreed.

“I never wanted to leave,” he says. “I had meeting upon meeting with Aidan Tynan, who was the representative of Arkaga. I was on a pretty small contract when I came into the club so I had to prove myself, which I did. I went on to become one of the first names on the teamsheet towards the end of the season.

“I basically wanted to be brought in line with what the other lads were on, because I was on significantly lower wages. I was still living at home with my mam and dad so I just wanted to be able to afford to at least go out and rent a place of my own.”

His semi-final performance against Bohemians may not have been enough to earn him a satisfactory contract with his current employers, but it hadn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere. Bohs wanted him and made their intentions clear by putting a three-year contract on the table. There was interest from the UK too.

McSweeney: “I said to the owners that I didn’t want to go to Dublin; can ye just match what they’re offering? But they held firm. So I said, you’re going to get rid of a Cork lad who loves the club to bring in players from Dublin or Longford; players who you’ll have to pay lodgings and relocation money to, as well as a decent wage to get them down in the first place.

“I felt it was cheaper to keep me and that I’d be better than what they were going to bring in, but they couldn’t see the common sense in that at all. In the end, I had to look after myself. And I couldn’t see myself playing for Bohemians.”

inpho_00239668 Leon McSweeney celebrates after scoring against Kilkenny City during Cork City's run to the 2007 FAI Cup final. Source: INPHO/Neil Danton

Those talks didn’t conclude until after the FAI Cup final, however, so when McSweeney travelled to Dublin with his team-mates for the big game on the second day of December, he was still confident that another good 90 minutes would be enough to secure his future in Cork.

On a miserable, wet, windy day at the RDS, City denied Longford’s bid for a third title in five seasons thanks to a goal from Denis Behan on the hour-mark. Just before he got his hands on the cup, captain Dan Murray told RTÉ that the win was “two fingers up to the board and whoever is running the club”.

Murray’s comments confirmed supporters’ suspicions that all wasn’t well behind the scenes. On the bus after the game, the players celebrated their triumph nevertheless. The new owners were slow to hand out contracts, but not champagne. The players made the most of it and chants of ‘Sack the board’ came from the back rows, making for an uncomfortable journey to the team hotel for the board members sitting up the front.

McSweeney: “That was just a bit of craic really, we were just trying to enjoy the moment at that stage. We were all working off hearsay as well about the situation the club was in. We knew that there was uncertainty surrounding Damien’s job and the likelihood was that he’d now either walk or get pushed.

“There was also a lot of uncertainty for the players, with so many of us out of contract and there was no sign of that being sorted. It was all a bit ridiculous. Aidan Tynan came into the dressing room at one point and was comparing football injuries to injuries in greyhounds. It’s hard to explain but it was a bit of a weird time.”

Damien Richardson celebrates with players in the dressing room after the game 2/12/2007 Liam Kearney, Colin Healy, Leon McSweeney, Damien Richardson, Billy Woods & John O'Flynn celebrate the win. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

It was a few weeks before Christmas but McSweeney was still hopeful of resolving his contract situation in the midst of the celebrations that followed the FAI Cup win. However, the owners’ stance hadn’t changed when it came to his financial expectations. By the time the festive season arrived, McSweeney had joined Stockport County’s push for promotion from League Two.

“It was massively disappointing at the time, especially on the back of winning the cup,” he admits. “But did the uncertainty put a dampener on that achievement? Not at all. I loved every second of it. I really savoured and enjoyed the whole thing. Winning the cup with your hometown club, with your family and friends watching on telly and in the stands, there was nothing like it.”

* * *

After an eight-year absence, Cork City return to the FAI Cup final tomorrow. Leon McSweeney is still in England now, and he’ll be tuning in for tomorrow’s game against Dundalk from his home in Leicester, where he now lives with his wife and daughter.

He avoided the financial headaches that were to come at Cork City, but McSweeney would eventually encounter plenty of challenges of his own. After Stockport, stints at Hartlepool United, Leyton Orient, Carlisle United, Northampton Town and Nuneaton Town would follow, until he decided to call it a day last year at the age of 32.

His spells at Carlisle and Northampton had left him slightly disillusioned with the game. McSweeney believed he had represented the two clubs well but “felt let down” after being released by both. There were options elsewhere but none of them appealed to him.

PA-16321770 Leon McSweeney (right) playing for Leyton Orient against Coventry City. Source: Jon Buckle/EMPICS Sport

“It was a tough decision to walk away from it all,” he explains. “Do you take what’s on offer just for the sake of calling yourself a footballer, or do you make a brave decision, say enough is enough and go down a different road? That period also coincided with me having my first daughter. There were a lot of factors but overall I’d just had enough of it and there was nothing attractive enough to keep me in the game. It felt like the decision was kind of made for me.

“There are people playing in League One for £300 or £400 per week now. That might be okay when you’re young and fighting to earn a career, but when you’ve been there and already climbed up the ladder, and you have other interests off the pitch, it’s a different matter. You still love the game and you want to keep playing at a decent level, but if the offer isn’t there, it’s pointless to keep pursuing it so you’re better off looking at other avenues.

“With the amount of out-of-contract players on the transfer list, the days of a fella getting a couple of grand per week no matter where he goes are gone. You’re competing with so many players, like fellas dropping out of the Premier League at 32 who are looking to prolong their careers. They’ve already made their money so they’re willing to play for peanuts.

“So you’re competing with the younger lads who have been brought in, as well as the older pros who have already had successful careers but are now dropping down the leagues. The stories of players earning a few hundred pound in the last couple of years aren’t unusual at all. That’s quite a common scenario now.

“At the stage I was at, it’s about taking ownership of your own career and your own destiny. It’s about telling yourself that you’ve had a good run at it but you don’t need that at this point in your career. If you keep accepting it, there are a lot of people involved in the game — managers, chief executives — who’ll just ride you. They know you’re desperate.

“You’ll end up being one of those players at 32 years of age, a player who has won promotion and cups, going around to clubs for trials. You just think to yourself, I deserve a bit more respect than this. That’s the view I took and I just decided that I wasn’t going to do it anymore.”

The Cork team celebrate victory 2/12/2007 Celebrations on the pitch following Cork City's 2007 FAI Cup triumph. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

McSweeney is now calling upon his degree as he makes plans for the future. His playing career may be over but he’s still keen to stay involved in football. He’s taken a step in the right direction too by securing a role with the youth academy at Notts County.

He remains a Cork City supporter and a win tomorrow at the Aviva Stadium would almost bring him as much satisfaction as the 2007 triumph did: “I’d love to see them do it. Cork City is too big a club not to be winning trophies regularly. They’ve run Dundalk close for the past couple of years but they’ve fallen short at the last hurdle, but hopefully they can go one better this year.”

In contrast to their last cup success, Cork City FC is now on a much more stable footing. Arkaga’s tenure soon turned sour as debts of €800,000 were accumulated and the club was placed in examinership in August 2008. It marked the beginning of a turbulent spell for City, which ended in 2010 when the supporters took the reins.

McSweeney: “What happened the season after I left was ridiculous. Lads had signed contracts that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on and they weren’t getting paid. I was still in contact with a lot of the lads and I was watching it from afar.

“To rip the team apart and leave the club in tatters like that, it was disgusting to see. It’s something that has happened all too frequently in the League of Ireland, and in football in general.”

If Cork City manager John Caulfield had his way, Leon McSweeney would probably be on the pitch tomorrow. When defender Brian Lenihan left Turner’s Cross last year to join Hull City, Caulfield tried to bring McSweeney — who had been converted into a full-back later in his career — home to Cork.

“John rang me and my daughter was due to be born at around the same time. A deal was close to being done but I just couldn’t give that commitment. Ultimately it wouldn’t have been financially viable either. I’d have had to move in with my parents, at 30-odd years of age, with my wife and daughter. That’s not what the dream of being a footballer is.

“I’d love to have come home, I would have walked back to Cork, but the circumstances just weren’t right. The sad thing about it is that I could definitely do a job for another few years, but it was a difficult decision that you have to make for the sake of your family… and your sanity.”

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