Paddy Cunningham rolls back the years to book Lamh Dhearg's semi-final place
FORMER Antrim ace Paddy Cunningham rolled back the years on Sunday night hitting 10 points in Lamh Dhearg's impressive county quarter-final win over last year’s county finalists Creggan Kickhams.
Now 34, Cunningham showed that class is permanent and he is still the best free-taker in Antrim five years after playing his last game on the inter-county stage.
Six frees, four points from play and generally being a pest to the Creggan defence, Cunningham and his attacking colleague Terry McCrudden, who grabbed a second-half goal, helped sink their rivals (1-13 to 0-11).
Now in the twilight of his playing career, Cunningham is savouring every championship minute with the Hannahstown men, who await the winners of tomorrow night’s replay between St John’s and Portglenone.
“Every championship game is special but I suppose when you’re younger you definitely take it for granted,” said Cunningham. “So it probably is a bit more special.
“Before I left the house for the Creggan game, I said to my wife Claire: ‘God forbid, we lose, this could be my last match ever for my club.’
“You don’t know what next year will bring. I’ll be 35 then.
"I’ve three younger children now (12, six and three). Claire is very supportive but at the same time it’s very sore on my body. It’s getting harder to get out of bed in the mornings after games. Hopefully we’ve still a few more games to play this year.”
He added: "I’m glad to be giving football with my club my primary focus over the last few years. I had to give up hurling because it was taking too much of a toll on my body playing both, so that’s probably helped in terms of continuing to play. My days are numbered at this stage so I’m just thankful that I’m fit enough to play and competing."
His surefootedness and experience were absolutely crucial in seeing off Kickhams in Glenavy on Sunday night.
Cunningham’s last game for Antrim was an All-Ireland Championship defeat to Limerick at the Gaelic Grounds in 2014.
Five years on, he confesses to missing the cut and thrust of county football.
“I find it hard going to watch Antrim games. I never formally retired either. I’d planned to take a year out and go back but that never materialised so there is a regret there, that I didn’t finish it off the way I would like to, whereas boys like Mick McCann were able to formally announce their retirement.
“Having unfinished business is not the right word,” Cunningham added, “but I didn’t get closure. I do absolutely miss it and when you obviously see [Lamh Dhearg club-mates] Declan Lynch, Conor and Ryan Murray playing away you do miss that buzz and it’s difficult trying to transition from county to club especially being in that bubble for so long.”
Cunningham had the privilege of captaining Antrim in the 2009 Ulster final, which they lost to Tyrone. He was also part of the star-studded UUJ team in 2008 that scooped a Sigerson title.
Cunningham was part of a three-pronged inside forward line that included Mark Lynch and Mayo’s Andy Moran. Karl Lacey, Charlie Harrison, Darren Hughes, Tomas McCann and Peter Donnelly were also on the team.
But the biggest achievement in his career “ by a country mile” was winning the county championship in 2017, Lamh Dhearg’s first since 1971.
After easing into the semi-finals on Sunday night against a fancied Creggan, Cunningham is hoping there are more podium appearances before he calls it quits.
“Looking back over the last lot of years, we lost five county finals before we actually won the one in 2017 as we came up against the dream team of St Gall’s in that era,” Cunningham said.
“We were very unfortunate in some of those finals, losing in extra time and a replay so I think it meant all the more to us and getting over the line two years ago.
“I think there’s a good mix of youth and experience as with all the teams in the top four or five in Antrim - St Gall’s, Cargin, St John’s, Creggan... I think the Antrim championship is competitive as it’s ever been.
“There are four or five teams that are in contention to win it and on their day everybody is capable of beating each other, and that’s good for Antrim football. Any team that’s left in the competition feels that they can win it.”
Defending champions Cargin face old rivals St Gall’s in a repeat of last year’s semi-final clash, with the two last four games provisionally scheduled for the weekend of September 21.
St John’s face a stiff week ahead with a SFC replay with Portglenone before their dual players take on Cushendall in the SHC semi-finals in Ballycastle on Sunday.