GAA Football

'It's about leaving the jersey in a better place' - Lámh Dhearg hero Paddy Cunningham

Paddy Cunningham (right) emulated Mickey O'Neill's eight-point haul from Lámh Dhearg's 1971 success. Picture by Cliff Donaldson.
Cahair O'Kane

IT’S not too often you can pass up fate and it will fall straight back into your hands, but that was the path for Paddy Cunningham’s match-winner on Sunday.

When Conor Murray was fouled two minutes into stoppage time, the chance to create a crucial lead for Lámh Dhearg was handed to the former Antrim forward.

40 yards out, slightly to the wrong side for a left-footer, its trajectory had an early cheer coming from the relieved blue corner in Glenavy. Tailing east, it was never going over.

But it was kept in play on the far post and as St John’s worked it out of defence, they gave it away to Ryan Murray.

As he turned to look for support, there was Cunningham again, this time 30 yards out at the perfect angle for a left-footer. You knew when he was able to take a half second’s composure that the Lámhs would lead again.

In doing so, he emulated the great Mickey O’Neill, who kicked the same tally of eight points when the club won the Antrim title for the first and last time on the field in uncannily similar circumstances.

On that occasion there was just a single point to separate these two sides, and it was only widened this time when Declan Lynch fisted the insurance score deeper still into a nail-biting, fractious period of added time.

There are generations of Hannahstown men that do remember the 1971 final, not least the ever-popular Frank Fitzsimons, centre-back on that team and milling around the pitch with a beaming smile afterwards here.

But for the entire current generation of players, this was a whole new experience. And for those that will come behind them, those with the painted red and white faces and unconfined joy for something they don’t yet fully understand, this was a massive step.

“At the end of the day, this is about the young ones. My own son Padraig’s four years of age, had his first game yesterday, and that’s what it’s all about – leaving the jersey in a better place and hopefully those boys can look up to us and the boys that come after us.

“Hopefully it’ll not be another X amount of years before we win another championship. I’ve been 16 years trying.

“I was just saying to the young lads before this that at the time, the older fellas were saying to me ‘grasp it Paddy, grasp it, because you mightn’t be here again’ and I was looking at them as if they’d ten heads, thinking we should be winning two or three of these over the next few years.

“It doesn’t work out that way. Thankfully the young lads have stepped up big time today, and we have a good mix of youth and seniority.

“It’s more relief than anything at this stage. I’m 32 now, I’m not getting any younger and you can only go to the well so many times. It’s a serious monkey off the back, to be honest.”

They were handed the title in 1992 in the boardroom and they’ve spent the 25 years since playing the bridesmaid. Five county final defeats was their lot amid the reign of St Gall’s and Cargin.

This year spelled a dramatic end to that era and it was fitting that the finalists themselves were the ones that brought the big two down.

Cunningham feels that the 2017 season may well have represented a changing of the guard in the county, not necessarily in sole favour of his own club, but in terms of an overall level of competitiveness.

“Serious credit to St John’s, they’re a phenomenal team. They have some of the best players in the county and they’re a very young side.

“We’ve been there and I’ve no doubt they’ll be back bigger and stronger along with St Gall’s and Cargin and everybody else.

“It’s good for Antrim football that it’s St John’s and Lámh Dhearg in the final this year, Creggan are knocking on the door, Portglenone and Rossa aren’t far away – there’s six or seven teams that believe they can win this championship.

“From a selfish point of view, it’s amazing to finally get over the line and win one, but it’s good for Antrim football and the city to have two teams competing, rather than going up the south-west.”

As the former Saffron sharp-shooter admits, there were plenty of years when the psychological blow of conceding 2-1 to St Gall’s within two minutes of the throw-in back in the quarter-final would have been enough to do them. Just not this time.

“In previous years we could have folded up and went home at that stage. There’s something different about this team; they have a never-say-die attitude.

“We were four down against Cargin, three down at a stage today, but we play to the final whistle. We said as a group this year we’d be totally honest and give it 100 per cent.

“It’s no coincidence that it’s happened under this management team. Marty Lynch, Terry McCrudden, Stephen Lynch, Jim Herron – they’ve been our managers at different times over the last 10 years and they’ve come together, and that has a lot to do with us getting over the line,” said the 32-year-old of the brains trust on the line.

And as for a crazy ending that saw the referee play a full nine minutes of added time beyond the two initially signalled, during which time he had to brandish three red cards, two blacks and two yellows, Cunningham put it simply down to all those years of hurt.

“That comes with experience as well. We’ve been on the other side of that from St Gall’s and Cargin over the years, and this time we were maybe a wee bit smarter closing the game out when we did go up.

“I don’t think we played to our full potential and St John’s didn’t either – it was almost as if the two teams were feared to lose the game rather than go and win it.

“It was cagey and edgy and there were a lot of mistakes by both teams. It’s just good to get over the line at last. We’ll reflect on it tonight and tomorrow and see where we are after that.”

Ulster Club SFC dates

Saturday 28 October (7pm): Derrygonnelly v Armagh Harps (Brewster Park); Slaughtneil v Omagh (Celtic Park)

Sunday 29 October (2.30pm): Cavan Gaels v Lamh Dhearg (Breffni Park); Scotstown v Kilcar (Clones)

Saturday 11 November (7pm): Scotstown / Kilcar v Slaughtneil / Omagh

Sunday 12 November (2.30pm): Cavan Gaels / Lámh Dhearg v Derrygonnelly / Armagh Harps

Sunday 26 November (2.30pm): Final

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GAA Football