Michael Sweeney was five years old when Joe Gray and the rest of the fabled Faughanvale vintage of ‘99 were winning their second Derry Intermediate Championship in succession.
Despite his tender years at the time of The ‘Vale’s last major success prior to this season, full-back Sweeney admits he probably knows more than is healthy about that team.
Those back-to-back successes have been both a source of pride and a weight around the neck of a progressive club that has struggled to reach those heights since. Indeed it took the shock of last season’s relegation to Junior football to finally shake the club from an apathy that has seen it ‘coasting’ for too long.
The 1999 team remain a huge presence around the St. Mary’s club - none more so than player-manager, Gray - but this weekend the ‘Class of 2015’ can eclipse their achievements with success on the provincial stage and Sweeney admits he would love to give the future generations of Faughanvale players some new heroes to look up to.
“Personally, I’ve never thought about making history, I just wouldn’t mind having an Ulster medal!” smiles Sweeney.
“We are still talking about the 1999 team and those boys who won the championships but it would be fantastic to be able to say you have an Ulster medal.
“You never know when this is going to come around again. You might only get one chance so you have to make the most of it. Maybe in 10 or 20 years we could be the boys that the young players are talking about and some player could be sitting in front of a reporter talking about our team but we haven’t done anything yet in terms of Ulster. It would be nice but Rockcorry will be thinking exactly the same thing as us.”
Sweeney has been one of the major success stories in a season of successes for the Greysteel club. He was on the bench in September 2014 when a play-off defeat to Limavady condemned The ‘Vale to Division Three but from those depths, the club has emerged reinvigorated and Sweeney is part of the new batch of young players the club are hoping can become the backbone of future success.
“People say they didn’t see relegation coming but at the same time, we played Limavady in the league and didn’t beat them. That play-off game was symptomatic of how our whole season went. Too many times when it was put up to us, we let our heads drop.
“We were devastated but it was on everyone’s shoulders to get the club back on its feet. It wasn’t just down to one or two players or the management, everybody had to step up.
Sweeney gives much of the credit for the team’s transformation this season to his player-manager and a new backroom team of former Sean Dolan’s championship winner, Michael McLaughlin, and Shay Murrin from Killybegs.
“Ever since I have been involved in the senior set-up, which is about four or five years, it probably hasn’t been as professional as it could have been,” adds Sweeney. “This year, Michael and Shay came in from outside while Joe is a legend at the club. The whole set up was different. Everybody wanted to do well and with Michael and Shay bringing a different outlook, it came together well.”
Since that pre-season meeting, the year has progressed in almost flawless fashion with a solitary league defeat to arch rivals Drum the one blot on an otherwise spotless copy book.
And for Sweeney, his own meteoric rise saw him land a first National League appearance for Derry against Cork in April. The full-back refuses to dwell on county matters though. His sole focus is on a Championship campaign which has been every bit as challenging as he imagined.
“Ulster has been a big step up. The boys I have been marking have been excellent. Against Templeport, I picked up Benjamin Kelly and Shea O’Donnell from Tyrone before that. They were both excellent. No disrespect to anyone in the Junior league in Derry but they the two of the best players I have marked this year but that step up is throughout the whole team. You know these teams are very good. They have won their respective titles and you know you have to be at your best against them.
“We haven’t seen much of Rockcorry yet but Monaghan football is on a real high with their senior county team doing well and Scotstown in the senior final. Monaghan, in the junior grade have been in something like nine Ulster finals recently so they will be a good team.”
It has been thanks to the efforts of everyone within John McLaughlin Park that the club has reversed last year’s decline in such a dramatic fashion, something that is not lost on their inter-county defender.
“It’s massive,” agrees Sweeney, “This is the first time in my time with the seniors that we’ve actually managed to create that bit of buzz around the club. Even the county final was a huge deal. There were kids arriving at the club to make banners and stuff. We haven’t had that for a few years.
“Look at the support travelling to Omagh and Enniskillen; they are out a lot of money following the team but it’s a huge help to the players. At the end of the two Ulster games, the feeling we got when we went over to the people who have travelled down was brilliant. The club which has really got behind us this year.
“Everybody in the team knows that this is a big deal for everyone who has followed us so we want to do well for them as much as for ourselves.”