Paddy Cunningham confirms for Saffrons in 2021
'THE Last Dance' may be the exceptional documentary charting the Chicago Bulls' quest for a third-straight NBA Championship in the 1997/98 season, but Paddy Cunningham is set for his own version in 2021 as he confirmed he will be back in Antrim colours.
The Lámh Dhearg attacker returned to the Saffron jersey at the start of this year having been away for six seasons, but it was evident little of the old magic had faded.
It was intended to be his swansong in 2020, but given the stop-start nature of the year, his ability to still perform at the top level and a new management team headed by Tyrone All-Ireland winner Enda McGinley, on St Stephen's Day Cunningham Tweeted his intention to return for one last hurrah.
"I said last year that I thought it would be for one year, but given the way things panned out with Covid, things didn't get true legs last season as it was stop-start," he said.
"Even with that, I had envisaged that I was going to retire, but with the appointment of Enda McKinley, Stephen O'Neill, Sean Kelly and Stephen Quinn, it's exciting.
"I met with Enda, Stevie and the lads a few weeks ago for a chat and they are impressive people, so that was a huge factor in deciding to give it one more go this year."
Antrim missed out on promotion from Division Four with a heavy defeat in Wicklow in the first game back after lockdown fatal to their hopes, but the Saffrons showed enough in previous games that there had been progress made.
In the Ulster Championship, they would fall to eventual winners Cavan in a game they were well in contention before fading down the stretch.
The fact the Breffnimen would claim the Angle Celt and move onto an All-Ireland semi-final has shown that Antrim were not quite as far away as initially thought and Cunningham says they will take that into the new campaign.
"In the Cavan game we were good for 40 or 45 minutes and then Cavan's experience told in the end," he reflected.
"It just shows what momentum can bring as Cavan were nine points down against Monaghan, similar against Down, and we probably gave them their toughest game bar the final against Donegal so we have to take confidence from that as well and need to realise we aren't that far away."
Barring a run to the 2021 Ulster final, Antrim will find themselves in the Tailteann Cup next year, but the focus will be in the initial part of the season with promotion out of a new-look Division Four the main priority.
With the division split into two groups of four, leading to semi-finals and a final, there is little margin for error when they face Louth, Sligo and Leitrim.
All four teams will feel they have the ability to reach the knockout stages and therefore, it will be something of a Championship feel once the action gets under way.
"We're under no illusions with the format that has come out with Leitrim, Sligo and Louth that is it a formidable section with the best four teams on the one side," Cunningham agrees.
"Louth's appointment of Mickey Harte, (Tony) McEntee in Sligo and Terry Hyland in Leitrim makes it a fiercely competitive section so it's going to be a huge challenge for every team.
"Based on the conversations I've had with Enda, Division Four will be treated like a Championship as there is no room for error and every game will be crucial.
"You only have three games to qualify for a semi-final so they will all be massive for ourselves and the other teams as they will be looking at this League the same as ourselves, so it is set-up to be a ding-dong division."