"It was my first big day and I'll never forget it..." Paddy Cunningham recalls Ulster Minor Championship debut for Antrim
SO many games for club and county are jostling for position in his memory bank but Paddy Cunningham vividly remembers running out at Casement Park to make his Ulster Minor Championship debut against Cavan in 2003.
The game was still in its early stages when Kevin Niblock, playing at centre half-forward, got the ball up to the Lamh Dhearg youngster who did what he did consistently throughout his career – he clipped it over the bar.
Cunningham, Niblock, Andy McLean and Mick McCann all graduated to the senior ranks from that team. McCann is still playing and Cunningham retired from senior football with his county last year.
“We had a decent minor team and it was the first real time you felt you were playing for your county,” said Cunningham, who was a dual county minor that year and went to win Ulster hurling medals at minor, U21 and senior level.
“It was my first big day and I'll never forget it. I played for Antrim senior for years but I can firmly remember that day against Cavan even though we didn't come out on the right side of the result. It gave you the platform to push on to the senior ranks and I can vividly remember the game and the scores I got whereas, if you asked me about games I played for the seniors, I could probably recall a couple and that would be the height of it in terms of what I scored or how the game went.
“It just shows you how it important it was to me at that time and how it made such a lasting impact on me.”
Nowadays minor games aren't played before the senior Championship fixture. Cunningham thinks they should be returned to their curtainraiser slot.
“For the players it was a pivotal moment of your career to play before the senior game,” he says.
“The crowd might have been small for the first half but there was always a bumper crowd in for the second half and there's nothing better for a young lad to be playing in front of a big crowd. At that age everything is new and raw and exciting and you appreciate it all more.”
On Saturday Paul McErlean's Antrim minors host reigning provincial champions Tyrone at Corrigan Park. In their opener, the Saffrons travelled to Inniskeen as rank outsiders but stunned Monaghan to claim a deserved three-point victory.
Early points from Ciaran McAleese and Cargin's Conhuir Johnston and Tarlach Enright's penalty got the Saffrons off to the ideal start and against the breeze in the second half Antrim scored 1-6 to seal victory with their second goal coming from Moneyglass youngster Kevin McCann.
Monaghan have bounced back since and beat Armagh in a round one qualifier so, although they go into Saturday's quarter-final as underdogs once again, Antrim will know they have already taken one notable scalp and they'll be keen to add another.
“For Antrim minors wins don't come around too often especially against a county that has a good tradition at minor level like Monaghan,” added Cunningham.
“I was delighted and it will breed confidence and give the players a taste of what can be achieved if they put the hard work, dedication and commitment into it.
“I hope they'll strive to push on to the senior team because no longer do you have to wait until you're 23-24 to play county senior, you could be in there at 19-20. This will give them a sense of what it's all about.”