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Cunningham is out to boost Antrim after his return from wilderness

 

Fresh test: Paddy Cunningham is excited to return to Antrim’s colours
Fresh test: Paddy Cunningham is excited to return to Antrim’s colours
John Campbell

By John Campbell

Not too many players are recalled to their county team squad a decade after leading the side in a provincial Championship.

But then few players possess the enthusiasm, character and courage that are by-words in the psyche of Paddy Cunningham.

The 34-year-old west Belfast schoolteacher may be viewed as a veteran but Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson smilingly dismisses the notion that Lamh Dhearg clubman Cunningham is past his best.

Cunningham has won many big battles on the field, none bigger than in 2017 when he was inspirational in his club's triumph in winning the Antrim Championship, but in combating Crohn's Disease away from the playing arena he has underlined that he is truly made of stern stuff.

And should he require any encouragement in reacquainting himself with the saffron jersey, then this is provided by Harbinson himself.

"Anyone who watched Paddy play in the Antrim Championship over the course of recent weeks will have noted his special skills," stressed Harbinson.

"Lamh Dhearg only came up short at the end of what was a gruelling campaign for them during which Paddy was outstanding. The example that he set and the scores he took underlined just what he still has to offer even after stepping away from the county squad some years ago."

It was in 2009 that Cunningham led Antrim into battle against Tyrone in the Ulster final when their commitment and zeal were not quite sufficient to see them capture the provincial honour before they went on to test Kerry to the full in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Liam Bradley was the man at the Antrim helm at that time and his implicit faith in Cunningham was more than rewarded in the team's Championship campaign in particular.

Right now, though, Cunningham is steeling himself for a rather more mundane task - helping Antrim to extricate themselves from the tentacles of Division Four of the Allianz League.

As the only Ulster team in the basement sector, Harbinson's men are desperately anxious to take a step up - and arguably no one is keener to see the side achieve this than Cunningham.

"I'm really looking forward to the challenge of representing Antrim again," he said. "There is a lot of work to be done but I am up for it."

Cunningham reveals that at the start of the Antrim Championship he was approached by Harbinson, who sounded him out on the possibility of linking up with the county squad.

"I asked Lenny for a little time to think about his request and indeed to assess my own performances over the course of the Championship," stated Cunningham. "The very fact that he asked me provided me with food for thought. That as much as anything else influenced my decision to say yes, I would give it a go.

"I met him a couple of times before I actually committed myself to Antrim again and I have to say I like what his plans are.

"I have also been encouraged by the fact that Tomas McCann, who is three years younger than me, is also back on board. Obviously we would want to make an impact on the pitch but if we can help Lenny in encouraging the lads who are already there in terms of leadership and focussing on the future then I think it can only be good for everyone involved."

Cunningham is convinced that there is a rich seam of talent in Antrim and he believes that the younger players should be encouraged in every way.

"The fact that Tomas and myself have been round the block so to speak would put us in the position of maybe helping lads along. Sometimes it only takes a few words here and there to keep players fired up. Hopefully with a mixture of youth and experience Antrim can make progress," added Cunningham.

Meanwhile, Glenn manager Tony Bagnall has an extra-special reason for hoping that his team can come up trumps in the Ulster Intermediate Club Football Championship.

Bagnall was the skipper when Glenn last won the Down intermediate club title but now his ambition is to manage the club he has served so well to provincial glory.

Glenn created something of a surprise last weekend when they overcame a Kinawley side that included the Corrigan brothers Tomas and Ruairi in the Ulster quarter-final and now face a tough semi-final assignment against Monaghan standard-bearers Magheracloone.

Glenn's 1-6 to 0-7 win over Kinawley has spawned optimism that the team can progress further, although Bagnall has been quick to point out that former Monaghan shooting star Tommy Freeman is still doing the business for Magheracloone.

Indeed, the lively Freeman, who gave outstanding service to the Oriel County, was very much to the fore in the 3-10 to 2-10 win over Foreglen and his current form is being interpreted as a warning by Glenn.

"Obviously we were delighted to get over Kinawley because we knew they would present us with a very tough challenge but when you get to this stage you don't expect things to get any easier," said manager Bagnall.

"Magheracloone have Tommy Freeman in their attack and by the looks of things he is still totting up scores which is a danger."

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