Aaron Cunningham hoping Crossmaglen connection can bear fruit in the Big Apple
AARON Cunningham is hoping the Crossmaglen connection can help fire New York to an historic first-ever Championship victory this weekend.
The Exiles came close to ending their wait for a win two years ago when they lost by a point to high-flying Roscommon and, with Leitrim the visitors to Gaelic Park on Sunday, there is quiet confidence this could be the year.
Spearheading that challenge alongside Cunningham will be fellow Cross man Jamie Clarke, whose stunning performances last summer helped Armagh reach an All-Ireland quarter-final through the back door.
The pair, who were involved in the south Armagh club’s All-Ireland club successes in 2011 and 2012, are now sharing a house in the trendy Hoboken area with former Meath player Dalton McDonagh.
Last week New York got the better of reigning All-Ireland club champions Corofin in a challenge game, a morale-boosting result that should stand Justin O’Halloran’s men in good stead for the latest attempt to create a unique piece of GAA history.
“It was nice to even just get a game of football,” admits Cunningham whose father, former Armagh forward and Irish League soccer star Joey, will be in the Big Apple for the match.
“The big thing for us is that we’re just having a lot of in-house games, so it was important for us to get a competitive game to see where we stood, and everything went well on the night.
“We were happy with it but we know Leitrim, being a county team, will be another step up. They have the benefit of six National League games already this year so we’re not getting carried away.
“Although it was a decent performance against Corofin, we’ve a lot of things to work on too.”
The last time Leitrim made the trip to New York was in 2013, and they handed the home side a 24-point beating in the Bronx.
Victory had rarely seemed so far away, yet five years on Brendan Guckian’s men start as only slight favourites to book a Connacht semi-final spot against Roscommon – with the presence of the hugely-talented Clarke in the Exiles’ ranks no doubt influencing the bookies’ thinking.
And, as far as Cunningham is concerned, Armagh’s loss is most definitely New York’s gain.
“Jamie and I were next door neighbours,” says the 28-year-old.
“We grew up together, were in the same class at school, both studied marketing in Jordanstown - we’re more or less brothers, so it’s great to have him here.
“Everybody knows about Jamie. Probably his only downfall is that he’s not playing for one of the top five or six teams in Ireland. If he was playing for the likes of a Dublin or a Kerry he’d probably still be in Ireland playing.
“But he’s over here working, he likes New York so it was great when he came over. Obviously it’s a major boost to have somebody like that, but the panel’s filled with great players.
“The likes of Tommy Cunniffe [Mayo], Neil Collins [Roscommon], Dalton McDonagh, they’re all guys with inter-county experience who have played at the top level.
“One man won’t make this New York team but obviously when you have a talisman like Jamie, it can only be a good thing.”
In previous years the New York challenge has ebbed away late in the game, allowing their visitors’ superior bank of fitness built up through the spring months to see them over the line.
This is something the current group is acutely aware of and, according to Cunningham, they are determined not to fall into the same trap.
“Maybe in the past they seemed to drop away in the last 10-15 minutes of games but this time we’ve worked a lot on our fitness,” he added.
“It’s different from anything I would’ve been involved in before because, playing with Cross, that expectation to win was always there because it was all we had known.
“This is a completely different sort of a challenge. As far as we’re concerned it’s a one-off game, and it’s a chance to make history – to try and get the first win out here.
“There’s no pressure on us, if anything it’s on the teams coming from Ireland. We’re just going out to play a game of football.”