Ronan Finn will celebrate his 30th birthday this year, and if you have followed his career so far, you’d wonder where all those years went.

Long heralded as one of the best talents in the country, it seemed inevitable that a club outside of Ireland would eventually snap up his services. Time has passed quickly, but not without incident.

The energetic midfielder has defied the theory that little can be achieved in staying at home.

He had a brief spell with Cambridge United but returned to UCD to add to his education at 17, the importance of which very much remains with him.

Over 13 years he has won seven major trophies and qualified for the group stage of the Europa League, not just once, but twice. It’s a remarkable feat, and now he has secured arguably the best contract the domestic game has seen in some time.

His lucrative three-year-deal with Shamrock Rovers as club captain, including payments in the off-season, would have been a pipe dream for any player not too long ago.

The Hoops have made a major investment in Finn and other signings to lead a new era at Tallaght Stadium, and help a young squad reach their potential.

The one-time starlet of the League of Ireland is now an elder statesman.

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“I am getting older, but I don’t actually feel it. I still feel I have a lot to offer and I’m definitely coming into a period in my career where I should be in my peak. For the next few years I hope to achieve a lot more in the game.

“We have so much going for us at this club now. The people in behind, Stephen Bradley as manager, there’s a great backroom and now us players need to step up. They have given us everything, all the tools we need.

“There is a new training ground in Roadstone. We have to make sure the results on the pitch on a Friday night match what everybody else has been doing for us.”

Starting off his career in Ireland with UCD, he looks back on the time fondly, describing the Students as “more ahead than any other club” at the time in terms of facilities, their high performance unit and catering for players off the pitch.

“I was young. I didn’t understand. I didn’t realise how important going to the gym was. I felt it was a bit of a chore, not realising how imperative it is to be physical and strong," said Finn.

“UCD was unbelievable and I nearly regret not taking more in because now I’m an older player and I’m seeing 18 or 19-year-olds in my dressing-room and I’m going to try to stress to them how important it is. I don’t want them to do what I did. I took it for granted.

“We have such a good structure here [at Rovers] with Darren Dillon as strength and conditioning coach. Last year with Dundalk, being physically strong was never a factor going against us. We were never out of our depth with that regard.”

It’s easy to see why Finn is so highly thought of. Following relegation with UCD, he remained with the club to lead a charge to the First Division title, all the while completing his degree in sports management. It was time for the next step after graduation and Liam Buckley provided it at Sporting Fingal.

“As a player you always need to have high standards. I suppose you have to give yourself the best opportunity on a Friday night. If that means doing extra work, staying back after training, it's something I have been brought up with. That's thanks to good coaches that explain that training is never finished.

“When a manager walks off the pitch you can do that bit extra. That's just part of being professional. I have been lucky enough that the clubs I have played for they have always had ambitions to do really well. When I left UCD I signed for Sporting Fingal and even there we had high aspirations.”

Unfortunately, those ambitions soon disappeared as Fingal went bust within a year.  It wasn’t a waste of time for Finn – he got his first experience of European football at the club – and Shamrock Rovers were about to offer him an even bigger stage.

“In my first spell at Shamrock Rovers we won the league. Being at this club, the expectations are high. I had good years in my first spell here. We qualified for the Europa League and it’ll be something in a few years I think I’ll look back on fondly. I hadn’t much experience of European football up to that. You get a taste for it.”

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In the aftermath of an unprecedented achievement, things did not run smoothly. Michael O’Neill’s foundation was not built upon and the Hoops even failed to qualify for a European competition for the next two years.

Stephen Kenny saw it as an opportunity to bring Finn to Dundalk, having already secured one league title at Oriel Park. Two more followed once the midfielder arrived, and that famous run from Hafnarfjörður to Tel Aviv that caught the attention of the nation last year.

It begs the question, why leave a club that has dominated the league for the last three years?

The Tallaght outfit offered the long-term deal to Finn when his contract expired in Dundalk, and also the carrot of helping to get experience in the real world utilising his degree.

It was an important factor, albeit not the deciding one.

“Last year with Dundalk was unbelievable. You were playing against such a high calibre of opposition, the players you were marking in a one versus one situation. It’s something at the time you probably don’t appreciate. It’s something I want to get to again in my career.

“It was just a decision I had to make to leave. It was never going to be an easy decision. I’m very happy with my move to Rovers. I know how good the club is and I know where the club needs to get back to. It’s not going to be easy, the league is going to be extremely competitive, but that’s why I left. I want to be successful at Shamrock Rovers.

“I’ve had unbelievable success at Rovers before and I know what it’s like to win things here. I know how special it is. To be honest that is the first reason I’m back. I’m coming in as the captain and that’s a nice incentive as well. Shamrock Rovers have put in place that every player is paid full-time and that shows the club has aspirations to push on. That’s just the way it has to go.

“There is a possibility of picking up work experience along the way. I’m 29 and football doesn’t last forever. But the main thing is to be successful on the pitch. I’m judged on my results on Friday night and my performance.

“Anything I have ever done outside of football would never deter my work in the game. My commitments to the club are 100%.

“I just need to look after myself and I’m now putting a couple of things in place that when I do retire I’m not after having my degree for 15 years and not using it. I need a little bit of experience behind me and then step out into the working world. You have to look after yourself.”

It’s a young Shamrock Rovers team Finn has joined, but that hasn't changed any mindsets. Finn talks of league titles, perhaps finally ending their wait for another FAI Cup, and more European progress.

His manager, only three years older, shares similar goals.

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Former Arsenal scout Bradley said: “We have to go back to winning trophies. We’re Shamrock Rovers. We have to, it has to be our aim. We know we have a hell of a task to catch Cork and Dundalk. We understand that and are not fooling anyone in thinking that it’s going to happen overnight. But we have to build towards that.

“Ronan is a different player and a different person than the one that left here a few years back. He has matured both on and off the pitch. He is an all-round player now.

“Off the pitch he leads by example now. He speaks to the young players, the older players and the management team. I think he will add a lot of quality.

“I know what he brings to us. For me, when I spoke to him, it was something that naturally fitted to make him captain. There has been a lot of changes here and I wanted someone fresh and who understands what it takes to be successful. He has stood out in that.”

The fixture generator has of course thrown up a return for Finn to his former pastures on the opening night on Friday. The injury-hit Lilywhites will welcome the Hoops to what is likely to be a heaving Oriel Park.

Much of the talk in the run up to the game has been about the new visiting captain, but he doesn’t see himself as the focus.

“I think Dundalk and Rovers is always going to be a big game. Dundalk have a new pitch and success over the years, the crowds will come out in their numbers. But I also feel that at Rovers we are rebuilding and it's something special here. We will have our own agenda. This game will not be about me.

“It’s going to be about us getting off to a good start. Dundalk will be well prepared and they will have aspirations of winning the league again. From my own point of view I know how important it is to get off to a good start.

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“In the last couple of years I learned so much with Dundalk. There was a really good group of lads. It was no surprise the success we had because everyone worked so hard. It’s the only way in order to be successful.

“As a captain I’ll have a role to make sure we give the young players here as much guidance as I can. But like in Dundalk, you have to want it yourself. There is only so much someone can tell you. You have to grasp that idea yourself and the way to be successful.

“It’s not easy.”

Nothing that Finn has achieved has been easy – and the wisdom he now shares could go a long way in helping Ireland’s most successful club get back to where they want to be.

Ronan Finn was speaking in an interview with RTÉ Group Soccer Correspondent Tony O'Donoghue 

Words by Rory Houston