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Hero Paddy Cunningham explains how he battled serious illness to help Lámh Dhearg win Antrim title

 

By Declan Bogue

This Thursday, former Antrim football captain and newly-minted senior football Championship winner Paddy Cunningham was due to check into hospital for a colonoscopy to investigate his deteriorating Crohn's Disease.

It will have to wait, now that Lámh Dhearg have their first Championship in 25 years and Cavan Gaels await in the Ulster club Championship in just under a fortnight.

At the finish of Sunday's final, he found himself unable to join in the celebrations.

On a purely football level, this sounds inexplicable. Cunningham was playing his sixth county final, having lost the previous five; the replay against St Gall's in 2003; Cargin by a point in 2006; St Gall's by three in 2008 and 2011 and a spanking from Cargin two years ago.

And, in the closing stages of Sunday's final victory over St John's in Glenavy, he made two crucial plays - a pointed free, which was to be his eighth of the day, and setting up Declan Lynch for the clinching score.

"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," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"Hopefully today, and over the next few days, it will sink in and maybe I will be a bit more jovial then!"

One of the first people onto the pitch was his father, Paddy Senior, who used to make the weekly commute from Derry city, where the family lived in the mid-80s, to Hannahstown to play for his beloved Lámh Dhearg.

And then, his godfather Pat McCague. When the Cunninghams moved back to Belfast, they lived in a semi-detached along with his mother's brother.

"I shared a moment with him after the game, he was on the last team in the club to pick one up (in 1971). It was just typical club stuff," he added.

Viewers of the social media clips of Lámh Dhearg's celebrations might have been struck by Cunningham's appearance, his red hair now gone as a side-effect of the powerful drugs that keeps his condition in check.

And also by his low-profile in the clips. Instead, he stayed close to wife Claire, daughters Amy (10) and Aoife (2) and son Pádraig.

"Last night you were expecting celebrations and a carnival atmosphere and whatever else," the teacher in St Mary's CBGS said.

"For me, I just felt numb to be honest with you. Genuinely, it hasn't sunk in. Maybe it will take a while. It's more relief that we were able to get over the line at that stage. It's a serious monkey off the back to be honest."

Cunningham first spoke about his condition in 2011 when it emerged. Two years previous, he had captained Antrim to their first Ulster final in 39 years.

Since then, there has been a gradual decline held in check by medication, but he refuses to allow it to prevent him from playing football and hurling with his club. On Sunday, he top-scored with eight points and his accuracy was the difference between the teams.

"The hair is just the side effects of the drugs I am on. It's just one of those things and the drugs are working well for me, so obviously it is unfortunate I am suffering from that, but at the end of the day it stops me having to get surgery or go under the knife," he explained.

"It keeps me playing football and keeps me being able to work and everything else. It's just one of those things and I don't think much of it.

"The way I have addressed it my whole life is to be as positive as possible. I think that has worked for me by and large so far. I don't like to dwell on things or feel sorry for myself. I don't think it has done me any harm. It's about staying as positive as possible. I am very lucky, I have Claire and the kids, they give me massive support as well. So I keep going."

On Saturday mornings, he brings Pádraig to the club for Fundamentals training. He recognises that the GAA is much more than just playing on a county team.

"You are in a bubble playing county football and you are only worried about looking after yourself and being the best you can be," he stated.

"But we were saying - they were making a couple of speeches and whatever - it was about the kids in that hall. At the end of the day, our days are numbered in terms of playing for Lámh Dhearg but they are the future.

"It's great, I have a Championship myself now and hopefully it will push Pádraig and his peers on forward and it won't be as long for the next Championship to come up the hill!

"But listen, it is what it is. I try to stay positive as possible. I keep in touch with the club. I just pray it will settle itself over the next couple of months here."

And with that, Cunningham announces he is actually in the gym, preparing for a dip in the ice bath.

He added: "We weren't looking any further than the game. Cavan are a great team, Seanie Johnston, Mickey Lyng, Martin Dunne, that's the ones of my age profile and generation, and then they will have a lot of the Cavan under-21 and minor successful teams.

"They are a strong side, and it will be in Breffni as well, but it's something special for the club."

Preparing for Cavan Gaels.

Preparing for life.

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