GAA Football

Paddy Cunningham - a career of being in the right place at the right time

Paddy Cunningham celebrates Antrim's successful promotion earlier this year

JULY 4 2021, Armagh versus Antrim in the Ulster Championship. This was it. The last dance. There’d be no more encores after this day.

Paddy Cunningham knew this to be true.

He'd asked management about bringing Padraig, his eight-year-old son, on the team bus to The Athletic Grounds.

No problem, said Enda.

From the outset, the deal between manager and player was cut and dried: an impact sub. That would be as good as it gets.

Cunningham wrestled with the notion for long enough but accepted the playing conditions.

No matter where he went or played for, Cunningham was always a key player, the go-to man in the team.

But he was 36 now and pushing. The terrain had changed.

Throw into the mix of being out of the inter-county picture for six years – between 2014 and 2020 – faith in him rolling back the years had ebbed a little.

Cunningham started out with the Antrim senior hurlers under Dinny Cahill before Mickey Culbert called him up for the footballers in the mid-noughties.

That’s some amount of road - a road that would twist and turn and eventually narrow.

Despite trailing by two points at the break, Antrim dictated much of the first half against Armagh.

In the second half, Armagh begin to open up and long before the final whistle Enda McGinley’s men are playing for pride.

Leaning forward on the bench throughout the second half, Cunningham waits for the manager’s signal. Eye contact first, then a nod.

In the 45th minute, the first change. Tomas McCann comes in for Ryan Murray. Ten minutes later, Conor Small enters for Patrick McBride. Still Cunningham waits, while Armagh pick off three goals.

Mark Sweeney takes over from young Conor Stewart in the middle of the field. Kevin Small and Eunan Walsh are told to get ready.

On this day of all days, the clock is moving faster that it has ever done.

Is there one last cameo? One last banana shot from that wand of a left boot? One more rage against the dying light?

For Padraig. For Aimee, Aoife and Claire. For himself.

The final whistle sounds.

Antrim’s season is over.

Paddy Cunningham’s Antrim career is over too. And that’s that.

He’s able to park all the negative energy he's feeling and takes Padraig onto the pitch for a kick-about.

“Naturally, I was taken aback and annoyed, really annoyed to be honest because I’d worked so hard to get up to that level,” Cunningham says.

“This was something I’ve never experienced before: every team I’ve been involved in I’ve always been a starting player and held a lot of responsibility within the team…

“But, at the end of the day, the results worked out from a team point of view – so maybe it was the right call. You’d maybe feel capable of doing more.”

Cunningham got a combined 35 minutes of game-time in his last season with Antrim.

All those early-morning gym sessions before teaching PE and Irish in St Mary’s CBS on the Glen Road and then driving up the road to Dunsilly to put himself through the pain barrier with the rest of the Antrim squad.

During that period, he shifted over a stone in weight - all for roughly a half a game…

We’re sitting in the spacious bar in the Devenish Complex on a cool Monday evening before he heads off shopping to buy his wife Claire a birthday present.

Does he regret all those months of effort for so little game-time? Not a bit of it.

Returning under Lenny Harbinson in 2020 and staying on under new boss Enda McGinley gave him “closure” after missing six years.

Of course he would like to have played more but few get to write their last chapter.

In any case, Antrim had a successful season and in those minutes Cunningham was on the field he made a telling contribution in hauling his county into Division Three.

His 71st minute banana shot down in Haggardstown that sunk Mickey Harte’s Louth gave Antrim lift-off.

A week later, he came off the bench in the 65th minute to hit the winner against Sligo at Corrigan Park and grabbed another point from the bench to help see off Leitrim in the closing stages the following week.

Three hard-earned one-point wins which Cunningham helped achieve.

He came on in the 71st minute in Dungarvan but Antrim had already sealed promotion against a beaten Waterford side.

“I played against Paddy a few times. He was a class player with a sweet left foot,” says former Tyrone Allstar forward and Antrim coach Stevie O’Neill.

“The first time I met him was in Dunsilly. It was a cold winter’s night, we’re sitting in the changing room and he indicated he wanted to play. In his own words, he said: ‘I’ve a bit of timber to shift.’ [laughing]

“In fairness to him, it showed his commitment levels to shift timber in your mid-30s. He got himself in brilliant shape and he kicked some unbelievable scores.

“The one down in Louth was top class, outside of the boot. The ball came across to him on that side and you were happy that it did… As soon as he hit it, it summed Paddy up. It was just a bit of magic. He also showed unbelievable leadership during those months of training last year.”

With pre-season just around the corner again, Cunningham had an amicable conversation with McGinley and let him know that he was calling it day.

The news didn't come as a shock to anyone.

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DERRY'S Mark Lynch didn’t appreciate just how good Paddy Cunningham was until he played alongside him in the UUJ attack that won Sigerson in 2008.

Cunningham played a dream final against Garda College, hitting a game-winning 1-9 (0-4 frees).

That Jordanstown team was laced with quality: Lynch, Cunningham and Andy Moran formed a prolific inside forward line and also boasted Karl Lacey, Charlie Harrison, Tomas McCann, Darren Hughes and Peter Donnelly.

“It still sticks in my head to this day, Paddy scored something like 1-9 and he never came out of the 20-yard line,” says Lynch.

“There was Paddy, Andy Moran and me in the full-forward line. I’m useless inside. I have no dummy, no nothing and I usually got held up, but the best thing about Paddy was he was always there; as soon as he turned it was over the bar. It was unbelievable. He was in the right place at the right time.

“What stuck out for me was Paddy’s efficiency. He has something like 97 or 98 percent conversion rate.

“He always loved the other side where it’s going across his boot rather than the inside of his boot. Andy and me would have gone naturally to the right but Paddy would be on the loop – bang, over the bar.

"The Guards didn’t know what to do with him. Paddy doesn’t have lightning pace but has unbelievable spatial awareness. He’s like a snooker player. He’s three shots ahead. It’s hard to describe to be honest. I learned so much from playing with Paddy and Andy.”

Mark Lynch won a Sigerson Cup with Paddy Cunningham in 2008

A year later, Cunningham is leading Antrim out to play Tyrone in an Ulster final, the county’s first in 39 years.

‘Baker’ Bradley’s bellowing words still echo: ‘Clones will be like going into a jungle, boys. Keep your heads up and keep looking forward.’

“I don’t remember anything about the drive in,” Cunningham says. “I just had tunnel vision that day and it was over like that [clicking his fingers].”

Cunningham hit 0-11 (0-6 frees) in a final that Tyrone won pulling up.

Corner-back PJ Quinn couldn’t lay a glove on the Antrim captain all afternoon but Sean Cavanagh, Owen Mulligan, Kevin Hughes and Joe McMahon did sufficient damage at the other end of the field.

Under Baker, Antrim also gained two promotions back-to-back and were no longer Championship fodder for any of the top teams.

“Baker really instilled a sense of belief. It was borderline arrogance and cockiness but it was good.

“We’d a good crop of players too. Tomas [McCann] and me had won a Sigerson together at Jordanstown and Queen’s won one too with boys like James Loughrey.

“You’d Mick McCann, Kevin Niblock, Kevin Brady, Colin Brady… That period was phenomenal.

“But after Baker stepped away we were hoping to get a ‘big-hitter’ in but it fell by the wayside...”

Away from the sports field, the Lamh Dhearg man has had a running battle with Crohn’s Disease since his early teens, a debilitating condition that causes inflammation of the bowel and can have a serious impact on a person’s quality of life, if untreated.

With medication, he thought he was cured from the disease until he fell awkwardly during a game and was in a lot of pain. He was rushed to hospital where surgeons removed eight inches of his large intestine that had become poisoned.

More recently, one of the side effects of a relatively new and very successful medication to treat Crohn’s resulted in him losing his hair within the space of a year.

“That was a challenge, psychologically, in itself,” he says.

“There were a million different side effects, I was just unfortunate that I got one of the major ones. It just happened over a period of time. Losing the hair was stressful and I did worry about it.

“I tried to wear hats all the time. One day I just shook it off. It was a case of: do you want to be healthy or do you want to have hair? There was only one winner!” he laughs.

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AN All-Ireland SFC Qualifier defeat down in Limerick in 2014 was a sickening blow to the Saffrons. After the dramatic highs of 2008 to 2012, Antrim were running on sand. Cunningham certainly felt drained and politely declined new manager Frank Fitzsimons’ invitation to stay involved.

“You have to remember, I came straight out of minor and into the Antrim senior hurling squad under Dinny Cahill, did two years there, I was playing colleges' football and hurling, club football and hurling, U21 hurling and football, and straight into the senior footballers.

“It was just relentless and I wasn’t performing to the best of my ability because I was just mentally drained. I stopped at that stage.

“I planned to take a year’s break or a two-year break and it ended up a lot longer than that. Looking back, we were lucky enough to win a club championship [in 2017] during that six years, which I don’t know if we’d won or not if I’d continued to play with the county year upon year. That was probably my best achievement to date.

“The phone obviously went the first couple of years [to go back] and then stopped. People obviously felt that was me done.”

Antrim coaches searched high and low for the next generation of forwards – but when the club championship came around the evergreen Paddy Cunningham was still kicking points with relentless precision.

He’d gained some weight since 2014 and to the casual observer he perhaps cut a figure that was content to see out the rest of his playing days with the Hannahstown club.

Nevertheless, the conditions existed for a possible comeback: Antrim were struggling in Division Four – and Cunningham was flying for his club.

“When you have that football brain you can adapt and still offer a huge amount,” says his Lamh Dhearg club-mate John Finucane.

“Paddy just has an obsessive dedication to his position. There is no better free-taker on the island. But he’s so much more than just frees. When he eventually returned to Antrim [in 2020] there were games where they previously would have been one-point defeats and were now turning into one or two-point victories.”

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In the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Lenny Harbinson juggled his resources as best he could – but Antrim simply couldn’t win tight games in Division Four.

Think Derry at Corrigan Park in 2018. Leitrim down in Carrick-on-Shannon soon after. Sligo edged them out down in Markievicz Park.

Antrim’s results made for painful reading.

Harbinson spotted Cunningham at a club championship game one evening and told the veteran forward to ‘keep his phone on’.

A couple of weeks later the pair met for coffee.

Lenny Harbinson recalled Paddy Cunningham after a six-year absence from Antrim

“Whenever I first took over in 2018 I think we lost something like 12 players from the previous year,” Harbinson says.

“So we had a young team… In season one, we lost two games by a point – Derry and Leitrim – both of whom got subsequently got promoted. We had opportunities in those games but we needed a bit more experience. Watching the Antrim club championship the following season, Paddy was one of the stand-out forwards.

“He was always a class act, always had quality – and experience is very hard to generate in young players.

“Paddy wasn’t coming in to make the numbers. He was coming to either start games and get us into a winning position or he was coming into games to get us over the line.”

Cunningham admits he was “nervous” about returning to the inter-county scene after six years. He held his own in a couple of in-house games but felt more confident about being able to bridge that gap when he scored eight or nine points in a challenge game against Fermanagh before the start of the 2020 NFL season.

In their subsequent promotion push that was ultimately derailed by the onset of a global pandemic - and Wicklow catching them cold when the National League resumed seven months later - Cunningham gave a snapshot of what Antrim had been missing in the intervening years.

He popped over an early point against Paul Galvin’s Wexford in Glenavy and added a few more before the end and “settled the whole group”.

Harbinson fondly remembers his wonder score against Waterford in Haggardstown that was “reminiscent of what Maurice Fitzgerald did many years before against the Dubs down in Thurles.”

Cunningham loved playing for Harbinson too and felt the St Gall’s man was desperately unlucky in not getting Antrim out of Division Four at the end of 2020.

“Lenny’s just a good, honest person. I got a good feel for him. I was obviously a bit older, a bit more mature and I could probably relate to him a bit more. You can see things better…

“To be fair, the foundations were laid for promotion under Lenny and we did improve under him, but he just didn’t get the rub of the green on a couple of occasions.”

With his Antrim career now in his rear view, Paddy Cunningham is looking forward to more family time but will continue to press ahead with the Gaels Letter to the Taoiseach campaign, spearheaded by him and Jane Adams, urging a referendum and the creation of a fully representative Citizens’ Assembly.

“People might say the GAA shouldn’t be involved in anything political but at the end of the day it’s in their constitution, that the Association will work towards the reunification of the country and if anybody can play a small part, that’s what I feel I’m doing and would encourage others to do the same,” he says.

As for his legacy at club and county level, it will doubtlessly glow for generations.

Since his playing days ended, Stevie O’Neill has been trying to get forwards to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a conundrum that coaches the length and breadth of the country are trying to solve. 

“You’re always trying to get away from some underage stuff where some senior players get attracted to the ball," O'Neill says. 

"It's about being able to read that play and knowing that this ball is going to end up in this position, it’s going to come across to me. It’s cuteness, it’s patience. Paddy had it from a young age - and it was a privilege to have him.”

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