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Cunningham defies odds and hopes Antrim can do likewise

 

Fighter: Paddy Cunningham has battled bravely on and off the field
Fighter: Paddy Cunningham has battled bravely on and off the field
Liam Bradley leads the Antrim huddle, and Declan Lynch halts a Laois attack
Declan Lynch halts a Laois attack
Lenny Harbinson
John Campbell

By John Campbell

When Paddy Cunningham led the Antrim team out to face Tyrone in the 2009 Ulster Senior Football Championship final, he knew his side faced into a hard battle.

But little did he know that he himself was to confront an even more difficult personal struggle when the debilitating crohn's disease invaded his life.

Antrim may have been ranked total outsiders in that decider against the Red Hands yet the final score of 1-18 to 0-15 bore testimony to a gallant performance in which Cunningham was to play a real captain's part by scoring eleven of his team's points.

And even the threat posed by eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry in the qualifiers did not deter the Saffrons from digging deep into their reservoir of courage, skill and character to come up just short at 2-12 to 1-10.

That Antrim team clearly derived their inspiration from Cunningham and manager Liam Bradley in scripting an exciting and colourful chapter in the county's sporting history.

Yet while Antrim showed that they were not out of their depth in the inter-county sphere, Cunningham was to experience rather contrasting fortunes with his club Lamh Dhearg.

He played in five senior county football championship finals before eventually coming up trumps in 2017 when Lamh Dhearg made their longed-for breakthrough. It was a red-letter day for Cunningham yet the memories were etched against a backdrop of anxiety and doubt.

And the demands which his illness had taken on his body were borne out by his stunningly honest and utterly stark post-match comments.

"I didn't really feel like celebrating. I don't know. I just didn't really want to be in the middle of it. I was just so thankful, so grateful to get over the line. I was just a bit taken aback at the time. At the final whistle I was a little bit caught up emotionally," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Even in his darkest hours, Cunningham never lost the desire to sustain his sporting career while at the same time embroiling himself in pursuing his business interests.

Now the proprietor of two 'Gymco' training centres in Yorkgate and Finaghy, Cunningham is busier than ever while still maintaining a sharp focus on his health.

He has long since learned just how to overcome the misery, uncertainty and depression that can accompany serious illness and believes he has emerged a better person because of that.

Yet praise, garlands or bouquets would be wasted on this most modest of sportsmen.

Instead, an Antrim win in their Ulster Championship quarter-final against Tyrone today would transport him into seventh heaven and help reignite the fervour he brought to the table as a player.

He will be among Antrim's most fervent well-wishers when Lenny Harbinson's side take the field in an Ulster Championship quarter-final at the Athletic Grounds Armagh.

And Cunningham maintains that those players who have remained faithful to the cause may gain a measure of satisfaction from the game despite the fact that they have been cast in the role of also-rans.

"Although some boys have left the squad, there are others in there, including my club colleagues Kevin Quinn, Ryan Murray and Declan Lynch, who can show the way for what could be a good performance.

"The championship has provided its share of upsets to date and although they will be outsiders, I think Antrim are capable of rising to this challenge," maintains Cunningham.

"I feel the players have been working very hard under Lenny Harbinson and they will want to give it everything.

"Tyrone are undoubtedly a top-ranking Division One side but Antrim will not be perturbed, they will just want to give it everything."

Declan Lynch will skipper the side and Cunningham believes he can help set the tone for what he hopes will prove a stirring Antrim performance.

"Declan is a great man to have in your corner and I have no doubt that he will provide the right leadership this afternoon," insists Cunningham.

"We have all looked on as the Ulster Championship to date has thrown up a few surprises and it's my belief that Antrim could upset the applecart a little this afternoon."

"I think Lenny Harbinson will have the boys at concert pitch - he is a man with great pride in his county and I have no doubt this will translate itself to the players.

"We have players like Ryan Murray, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Patrick McBride who can get scores but I think the big thing for us will be to try and restrict Tyrone's scoring power.

"As we have seen recently this would be easier said than done."

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