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Paddy Cunningham walks away from Antrim with head held high

Paddy Cunningham celebrtates Antrim's promotion win over Waterford at Dungarvan in June Picture: Seamus Loughran

ANTRIM’S veteran attacker Paddy Cunningham has officially announced his retirement from inter-county football.

After a six-year absence, the 36-year-old Lamh Dhearg man was persuaded back to the Antrim fold last year under Lenny Harbinson and decided to continue for one more season under new manager Enda McGinley in 2021.

Cunningham’s decision doesn’t come as a major surprise as he had already intimated that 2021 would be his ‘last dance’.

He was brought into the Antrim fold under Mickey Culbert during the mid-noughties and captained the county to the 2009 Ulster final against Tyrone.

He leaves with “no regrets” and feels he “got closure” after returning to Antrim over the last two seasons.

Used as an impact sub under McGinley, Cunningham still managed to play a key role in the Saffrons’ successful push for promotion out of Division Four and leaves the inter-county stage as one of the best players to represent his county and the highest-ever scorer.

In an in-depth interview with The Irish News, which will appear in tomorrow’s edition, Cunningham said: “To be honest, I said at the start of last year that it would definitely be my last year. But, because of the pandemic, I didn’t really feel I got fulfilment out of my last year under Lenny.

“And whenever the new managerial appointment was made it was something different, something exciting and I went and met them and I decided to come back for one more year. I’m glad I did.

“Obviously we had a degree of success gaining promotion out of Division Four to Division Three so I’m glad I left on that note. I probably wish I was a year younger to give it another go in Division Three.”

Cunningham felt he was worth more game-time in the shortened 2021 inter-county season but had only warm praise for McGinley and his backroom team.

“It was an easy decision based on the fact that I was going to put everything into the season and have no regrets,” said the St Mary’s schoolteacher.

“I’ve a young family now – two girls and a boy and I’ve missed so much, and Claire, my wife, has been unbelievably supportive over the last 15 or 20 years. At this stage I feel I owe it to them to put more time and effort in at home.

“I really enjoyed every time I pulled on the jersey. Even the last year I look back on it with fond memories. If I had played a bit more last year, I think that would have maybe made me think a bit more about retiring.

“It’s a huge commitment being away from your family for four or five nights a week and to get limited game-time. I’m not getting any younger either.”

Cunningham significantly improved the Antrim attack while playing under Harbinson and came off the bench in Division Four North games in 2021 to help seal one-point victories over Louth, Sligo and Leitrim before claiming a nine-point win over Waterford to move up a division.

Cunningham chatted with McGinley last week and told him the news his manager was probably expecting.

“There were no hard feelings and I wished him all the best for next year and that I’d be supporting them every step of the way. It was very amicable. He understood my perspective and where I’m at.

“He just thanked me for my efforts last season. I said to him that I’d always be at the end of the phone if he ever needs anything. I’m an Antrim man and will continue to be. It’ll be a different dynamic now – I’ll be a supporter rather than a player.”

He will continue to play for his club Lamh Dhearg.

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