‘Fr Mick’: Founding Father, guiding light and history maker

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IT’S HARD to imagine what the landscape of Donegal soccer would be like now without the involvement of Fr Michael Sweeney.

Throughout the sport’s most significant milestones, his name is the one constant.

Rarely has a figure so influential been seen as ‘Fr Mick’.

He was there for the formation of the Donegal League in 1971, was one of those to break away in 1986 and form the Ulster Senior League and he was instrumental in the purchase of the land now know as The Diamond Park, Donegal League headquarters in Ballyare.

And then there was and is Fanad United.

From Ballynabrockey on the Fanad peninsula, not far from the lighthouse at Fanad Head, Fr Mick has been a guiding beacon himself.

It was he who founded Fanad United Football Club in 1972.

The clubhouse at Triagh-A-Locha is littered with framed images of heroes of old, who torched the bonfires of the peninsula.

The mastermind for some of the most significant was Fr Mick.

The FAI Youth Cup in 1979 and the FAI Intermediate Cup in 1988 were won by those in the now-iconic red and black vertical stripes.

Fr Mick can still see now the scenes at Swilly Park, where Fanad defeated Shelbourne 3-1 in ’79 or at Dalymount Park, once the mecca of Irish soccer, where Kenny Harkin provided a time-stand-still moment in ’88 when Fanad defeated Tramore Athletic 1-0.

“There was great celebrations in Fanad, special memories with special players,” he says now.

Before the formation of Fanad United, which came not long after the Donegal League was set up, two teams from the peninsula – Between The Waters and Fanad Head – competed in the Summer Cups of the time.

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Fr Mick himself had played for Rathmullan Celtic, under the charge of John Sheridan, father of legendary Finn Harps captain Jim.

“The first exciting memory I have of football is getting my first game for Rathmullan – it meant so, so much,” he says.

Times were more innocent then, but it was Fr Mick who laid the foundation stone at Fanad and 14 Ulster Senior League titles, a record, have been won, while the club reclaimed the Intermediate Cup, under player-manager Eamon McConigley in 1995.

They’re known throughout the land.

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They reached the semi-finals of the League Cup in 1987, with wins over Sligo Rovers, Derry City and Galway United, and they took St James’ Gate to two replays in 1992.

The great players roll off the tongue, but one stands out for Fr Mick. He doesn’t even have to think when asked who his best was.

“James Doherty was a fantastic player. James would be number 1 on my book,” he says.

Fr Mick took PCC, Falcarragh to an All-Ireland Schools title in 1982, with Johnny Kelly and Eddie McGinley – two other greats of Fanad United – among the class.

Times have changed and there’s a pained look about Fr Mick as he talks of the players of now.

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He says: “Soccer was very strong in those times. It was far stronger than it is now. The Gaelic has come on, fair play to them, but soccer is trying to compete.

“There are good players out there now, but they don’t have the same interest. At times, they’d prefer if you didn’t call for them. I remember a time when players would have been standing out with the bag packed waiting on you to call.

“Absolutely there are too many teams. If a fella can’t make it with one team, he just walks away to the team down the road. It’s too easy for him to get a game now.”

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The Ulster Senior League has been having The Last Rites administered for some time, but Fr Mick is hopeful that a solution to save intermediate soccer in Donegal can be found.

“I’m afraid that the Ulster Senior League won’t survive,” he says, 30 years after he was one of the founder members of the League.

“Teams are dropping off every year. It can’t survive like that. It’s important that we keep intermediate football. I think it might be better if the teams play a high level in the Donegal League and make it intermediate football.

“There is a bit of opposition there, but it’s important that everyone sits down and talks about the best thing to do.”

He and Dick Duffy, in 1971, were among the leading lights in establishing organised soccer, in the form of the Donegal League in ’71 and in 1983 he bought the land were now sits The Diamond Park.

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“We were looking around for a suitable place and someone told me that here was available,” he says, gazing out after turning the sod on the redevelopment of the pitch at Ballyare.

“It’s a very central location. I came to the owner and asked him how much he wanted for it. He wouldn’t touch it. About a fortnight after it, he came up to me at the mart and Falcarragh and said: ‘Are you still interested in that pitch?’

“I told him that we had a fair bit of money in the Donegal League. He said he wanted £9,000 and the deal was done there.”

He keeps a close watch on all things soccer and it was he who brought Ollie Horgan, now the Finn Harps manager, to Fanad.

He smiles as he recalls his first sighting of the Galway native, at the bus station in Letterkenny.

“I was talking to Art Friel, a cousin of mine who’s a guard down in Galway,” Fr Mick says.

“He told me there was a young fella going up to teach in St Eunan’s College. I was in Letterkenny waiting on him to get off the bus.

“This boy walked off the bus with an old pair of runners on him and a wee bag. He was the only one I saw who could have played football. I went over to him: ‘You’re not Ollie Horgan?’ I signed him up there and then.

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“I’m delighted to see Ollie is doing well at Harps. He deserves to do so well because he works very hard. It’s a big step up and a big challenge.”

Fr Mick spent some time involved at board level at Finn Park, too, but Fanad was always were the heart lay.

Even now, his influence around Triagh-A-Locha is evident.

Players talk in almost-reverential terms about his effect on them.

He’s more frail now than he was in those days when he patrolled the sidelines, but it’s easy to see how he got so much out of his men.

He commands authority and demands respect.

The results, the achievements, the cups and the memories have stood the test of time.

For eternity, the story of Donegal soccer and that of Fanad United can never be retold without mention of the man who started it all; the man known simply as ‘Fr Mick’.

Sports writer from St Johnston, now based in Letterkenny, with ten years' experience covering sport in Donegal. Was a nominee for NUJ Sports Journalist of the Year in 2010. Honoured by the Donegal Boxing Board in 2016 for his coverage on the sport.

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