THIS IS ME

Meet Niall MacSweeney: The Home Internationals manager at the wheel for Athenry, Connacht and Ireland

by Ronan MacNamara

Niall MacSweeney is one of Ireland’s most committed backroom team members in Irish golf. From club to international, he has managed at all levels! 

The Athenry clubman boasts a strong CV as manager or Captain of winning golf teams from club level to provincial level, to the international stage. 

A member of Athenry Golf Club since he was a junior in 1980 MacSweeney has become part of the furniture there.

MacSweeney admittedly developed his love of golf in Westport while a member there, serving as Handicap Secretary in Athenry during the 90s. 

The Home Internationals Manager also boasts a good playing CV having been part of Athenry’s Junior Cup side that won their first-ever Connacht title in 2000 before captaining the Senior Cup side to their only triumph in 2004.

After gaining recognition for his leadership in Athenry he was drafted in to manage the Connacht Youth side before managing the Men’s team from 2009-2011.

He served as squad manager at the 2012 Amateur Championship where he caddied for the final three rounds for eventual winner Alan Dunbar and has been a selector or manager for the Irish Home International side who have won five times since.

The former Athenry Club Captain also crossed paths with world number one Jon Rahm when Ireland went down to the Spanish in the final of the European Amateur Team Championships in 2014.

Married to his wife Ciara with three children, Fionn, Niamh and Eoghan they have played a huge role and have been so supportive of MacSweeney during his time travelling and captaining teams down through the years.

"They have been amazing," he said. "Their patience has been remarkable and I can only thank them for their support and allowing me to have the opportunity to be involved with so many teams over the years."

Arguably his finest triumph is managing the Irish side to a dramatic final day comeback to snatch the Raymond Trophy was at the 2021 Home Internationals.

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MacSweeney, who served as Golfing Union of Ireland High-Performance Chairman from 2017-2020, had seen it all before having been the manager of the Connacht Men’s Interprovincial team that won a famous  Interpro crown in similarly dramatic fashion in 2011, a decade before they reigned supreme again.

“It wasn't the first time I had been involved in something like that,” said MacSweeney who is a mortgage manager with Ulster Bank. “I was involved with Connacht when we won the Interpros in 2011 which was the last time we won it before 2021.

“We needed a draw against Leinster. It was a stacked Leinster team with Paul Dunne and a few other notable names on the team. 

“We were four-nil down at lunchtime after the foursomes. We took five and a half points out of seven in the afternoon to draw and win the Interpros. 

“So it was like deja vu. 10 years later, nearly. You wouldn’t want a bad heart though!”

MacSweeney and Bandon’s John Carroll [captain] took a relatively youthful looking Irish side to Hankley Common last September but for the team staff, the job had begun long before the first tee time.

"The backroom team generally consists of the Captain, supported by a coach (Neil Manchip) and team manager. Team coach is what it says on the tin, technical stuff and course review which Neil is really good with communicating to the players on, whereas the captain tends to focus on tactics and the manager is just logistics. There is always overlaps so in terms of the Homes last year I did a lot of statistics, analysis and a lot of pre-selection duties. 

“The team was picked after the West of Ireland so I had been looking at the Order of Merit coming into that. There were certain guys who were already on the team so it was just making sure that ahead of the selection meeting that you had all the stats, facts and events played overseas like the Brabazon or the Amateur Championship etc, and of course the Interpros which are very important in terms of their proximity to the Homes. The inputs of fellow selectors Michael Delany, Kevin Murray and John McKinstry to the whole process cannot be underestimated. 

“A week or so pre-travelling to Hankley Common we had a zoom meeting with the players to chat about pairings, flight times, accommodation and what we envisaged was the plan.

“You have very little turnaround time at the event. and if we were to continue winning during the week it meant we were going to be in the second match which means that our foursomes weren’t going to be starting until 9:00 AM. It meant our last singles match wasn't until half three each day which meant we had very little time to organise things like dinner in the evening, but you need to have that organised because you don't want guys hanging around and eating late and all that kind of stuff. 

“Everybody was there on merit. There were some close calls. But on balance, everyone was there on merit. We had experience in terms of Peter [O’Keeffe] Caolan[Rafferty] and Matt [McClean],” he added.

Dundalk native Rafferty who had played Walker Cup two years earlier for Great Britain and Ireland in Hoylake showed all his experience that week, despite enduring a tough start to the week.

While the team was stacked with rookies, Ireland was in the fortunate position that all the debutants arrived at Hankley Common in form with Alex Maguire, TJ Ford and Hugh Foley all notching titles during the year.

“An example of that experience was Caolan, who didn't have a great first day against Scotland, which was a very tight match. He was being rested in the foursome against Wales. He showed brilliant leadership. He came forward to John Carroll and said he would do team advisor for the foursomes which was a great idea.

“What a lot of people may not realise is that Hankley Common in terms of its course and practice ground, is spread out over 850 acres. So, to follow matches and see the golf and see how players are playing, it's quite a challenge. 

“So, the team advisor can speak to players and Caolan rather than stay in the hotel, he offered to do that job against Wales, and he was superb at it. That led to other guys who were being rested coming forward and taking that role. Mark Boucher did it on the final day singles against England and you can't underestimate his role there. 

“Peter is just Peter. He is a great leader on and off the course. He struck up a good partnership with Matt. The rookies that were there all earned their place. Alex Maguire had two wins at the Connacht stroke and the North of Ireland Open. TJ Ford won the South and was runner up in Mullingar.

“Liam Nolan had a couple of runners up finishes during the year, and Jack MacDonald is just a very solid player with a lot of good finishes on the Order of Merit.

“Hugh Foley was a debutant in the Homes, but he had European team experience from earlier that year.

“But there was no player that you looked at and said was weakening our lineup. We were very happy with the lineup that we had. Some players would not have been known outside of Ireland, but that made us more dangerous,” he added.

Ireland faced the old enemy on the final day knowing any slip-ups would most likely see Scotland pip them to the Raymond Trophy. At 4-1 down to England after the morning foursomes it looked like Scotland were heavy favourites to take the title against Wales, but MacSweeney paid tribute to his team and said despite the deficit, belief amongst the group never wavered.

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“People have asked what was said to the players at lunchtime after the foursomes? Sometimes it's what you don't say makes the difference! We were 4-1 down after the foursomes but there was a great atmosphere around the team. There was no sense of doom and gloom. John was a great captain.There was a great sense of comradery. One of the things we had over there that week was that we had great support from the players' families who were all there.

“Everybody was capable of winning their singles matches going out against an England team that world ranking wise would have been better than us. But everybody was playing well.”

Ireland took to the afternoon singles with the bit between their teeth as they staged a stunning fightback against their neighbours. Robert Moran led from the front coming from two down with three to play to halve with reigning English Amateur champion John Gough while Rafferty came up trumps dishing out an 8&7 drubbing to Amateur Champion Laird Shepherd in the anchor match.

Foley, Ford, McDonnell and McClean also registered wins before all eyes turned to Galway’s Liam Nolan…

“We started well and when the players were going through the 9th we started to think this could be on, but you need absolutely everything to go your way,” MacSweeney said

“Liam got a lot of the headlines because he won the winning point but the crucial match was Hugh Foley's match against Dan Bairstow.

“Bairstow was on fire that week, but Hugh ground out a 1UP win. We still had other matches on the course that were in reasonable shape but if Hugh didn’t get that point the match was lost.

“He had to hole a nasty little 4-footer with a touch of a break on it. When I saw it hit the hole I kind of said, yes,we have a chance now.

“Alan Fahy was 4 down through 9 and he got stuck in and here he was coming down 17 and Hugh, who was his foursome partner, went back down to give him support.

“At this stage, Liam Nolan's match was approaching the 18th green and I had gone back to watch Alan in case he was coming down 18. Liam was 1up and needed to stay that way, otherwise Scotland would win the event on overall individual matches won.

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“So, Hugh and I were watching what transpired on the 18th green with Liam from the middle of the fairway about 200 yards away. Hugh got a hell of a bearhug afterwards!

The circumstances were made to be even more bizarre by the fact the Scottish team stood opposite to the Irish team by the 18th green but it was the boys in green who were left jubilant and MacSweeney, not one to take credit paid tribute to Carroll who was skippering the side for the final time. 

“We all sprinted up the fairway to celebrate with the lads and their families. The members of Hankley Common were fantastic hosts and it was a great championship

“The Scottish team were most gracious afterwards too.

“Our players and management team also greatly appreciated the support given by Golf Ireland President John White and his wife Florence, they were superb!

“It was just great to be part of, delighted for the players and their families but particularly delighted for John Carroll. It was his final event as Irish captain and it was a brilliant way for him to sign off. He is one of the good guys, an absolute gentleman,” he added.

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