GAA Football

Paddy Cunningham's boyish enthusiasm shines through

Paddy Cunningham pictured during his return to the Antrim setup after six years away. Picture by Cliff Donaldson.

STANDING with his bare hands tucked down the sides of his shorts, there’s a boyish enthusiasm that peers out of Paddy Cunningham’s soul.

Like a wee lad who’s just scored his first goal for the under-8s, he seems genuinely delighted to be out in the cold air of Glenavy, even if by running around for the two hours previous, he kept himself blissfully unaware of just how cold it was.

He stands over between the two dugouts doing a live interview with BBC Radio Ulster and then makes his way back, the chill evident as he stops and spends another ten minutes talking to The Irish News.

At 34, he made his return on Sunday to the saffron jersey of Antrim, lining out in the number 13 jersey that he made a home out of a little over a decade ago.

Within 30 seconds, Antrim turn a ball over and Conor Murray sees a space. He sees a run. Cunningham moves off to right and as the ball hops up to him, he swings his left foot on the half-turn without a glance at the posts.

Six years have passed but the posts never move.

A lot has changed though. A diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease, a condition that causes an inflammation of the bowel, in 2011 has left him needing to manage his sport a lot more carefully.

He left the Antrim setup three years later but continued playing with his club, Lámh Dhearg, and was instrumental in helping them end a 46-year wait for an on-field championship success in 2017.

Cunningham had always intended to return at some point but as time went on, the prospect of a return seemed to fade.

Needing a blood transfusion every eight weeks is just part of his life now. But a change in his medication has allowed him to stabilise the condition and when Lenny Harbinson called, the flame was still lit.

“I’ve a brilliant consultant, Dr Mitchell, he’s fantastic. He has me in good shape now, the medication’s working at the moment.

“The drug I was on, I’d put on a good bit of weight and also lost the hair, so that was a challenge in itself. Thankfully I’m over the worst of it and it’s stabilised. I just need to monitor myself and keep myself in check as best I can.

“Nutrition and sleep are huge. Rest and recovery, recognising what the body’s doing. The management team, with Fionntain Devlin there, he’s very good. You have to check in every day in terms of how you’re feeling.

“If he sees my energy levels low, he would tailor my training to that. It’s listening to your body. As you get older, you probably do that naturally, whereas when you’re younger you’d just have kept going and caused knocks and injuries.

“Nearly every county is doing that at this stage I’d say, it’s just monitoring your energy levels, your nutrition, sleep, all that is monitored and tracked. That’s another thing I’ve noticed being out for six years, technology has advanced dramatically in terms of the GPS and everything else.

“The backroom team are great. They said to me before the game that I was playing 40 minutes and coming off no matter what happens, with only coming back you don’t want to risk wrecking it again and being out for two or three games.”

He’d been sidelined by a hamstring strain suffered in the final session before the McKenna Cup started.

There were a big few months of work put in once he decided to come back. Because of the medication he’d been on, his weight had started to creep up. When the county came calling again, he wasn’t going to let himself go out without shedding some of it.

And there was no doubt that there was a much leaner look about him in Glenavy on Sunday.

“Yeah. You know yourself, there’s no hiding place in county football.

“Over the last couple of years I’ve let myself go to an extent. There was a hard winter put in there, and there’s still another bit to go in terms of that.

“It’s given me a focus. I’m enjoying it. I have to say the first few weeks weren’t pretty, but slowly I’m getting there. I just have to keep the head down and work hard, hopefully I’ll have something to offer.

“You’ll be found out very quickly if you haven’t put the work in. I do feel I’ve still a brave bit to go yet. I’m using this as a good starting point.

“It was frustrating picking up the knock and sitting out the last few weeks, because you can’t get enough game time to get ready for the League and I missed the whole McKenna Cup.

“It was a small setback but the physio team’s been great. I’ve put the head down.

“The biggest thing for me, and I was trying to say to the lads, there was a lot of nerves in the changing room before the game. It’s trying to get them to realise that this is why you play football.

“At this stage, I’ve one year at it probably, and I want to enjoy every second of it and put as little pressure on myself as possible.”

He started Sunday’s game playing inside but as it wore on, he started to draw deeper. And in the modest surroundings of Glenavy, his influence could be heard as much as it was seen.

“Switch it!”

“You’ve pace, go at them!”

“Look in behind me!”

Cunningham’s intelligence was evident in the way that he orchestrated even the Antrim attacks in which he didn’t touch the ball.

“To be honest, before I committed I met Lenny two or three times, and that’s what he was saying in terms of bringing a bit of experience into the dressing room.

“I know Tomás [McCann] didn’t play this week but having him back too is a big boost. Lenny said that I’m as much to help him in the changing room as I am playing.

“He said to me at the start ‘even if you’re playing 10 or 15 minutes’ and I’m trying to say ‘Lenny, if I’m coming back, I want to play’. It was up to me to prove that. It’s head down and see where it takes us.”

Wherever it takes him, he intends to savour it. It’s an attitude we could all learn from.

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