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Paddy Cunningham: Casement Park is a base that's crucial to Antrim's identity

 

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Antrim footballer Paddy Cunningham

Antrim footballer Paddy Cunningham

Paddy with his wife Claire, children Aimee, Padraig and Aoife and Derry the dog!

Paddy with his wife Claire, children Aimee, Padraig and Aoife and Derry the dog!

Antrim footballer Paddy Cunningham

With Gaelic games in lockdown indefinitely due to the deadly coronavirus, Sunday Life Sport has introduced a series with Armagh's All-Ireland winner and Crossmaglen legend Oisin McConville, chatting with 11 of the biggest names in the sport.

This week, Oisin catches up with Antrim's Paddy Cunningham.

Paddy may have taken six years away from the inter-county scene when he was hit hard with Crohn's disease, but he has maintained his form for club Lamh Dhearg and has come back into the Antrim squad with renewed vigour.

In 15 years at the top of his game, Paddy has maintained his unerring accuracy with that wand of a left foot.

Oisin: How have you and your family adjusted to lockdown?

Paddy: Like everyone else it’s been strange and we’ve found it difficult, certainly to begin with anyway. I’m a secondary school teacher and still busy with lessons — and also the uncertainty around exams is challenging for both teachers and students. Home-wise, the weather has been a blessing. My kids are 13, seven and four, so they’ve been able to get out and about playing.  We got a new dog at Christmas and we’ve enjoyed the walks.

Oisin: Your wife is a key worker. Tell us a little bit about that.

Paddy: Yes, my wife Claire is a social worker and she works in a children’s home. Obviously there are still children there, so it means she is still working. To be fair, she is lucky in that they have been provided with proper personal protective equipment. We as a family are very proud of her and how she has dealt with everything. She has a good routine going and is so careful to protect us all. She showers before leaving the home. When she comes in, she is straight up the stairs to shower again and change her clothes. The clothes go in the wash and then we can interact again. It’s worked really well. With the Crohn’s I am of moderate to high risk, so I have to be that extra bit careful.

Oisin: You mention the Crohn’s disease. What was your feeling when first diagnosed?

Paddy: Well, first and foremost, I had no clue what it was. I just felt the symptoms, which were serious pain in the stomach and abdominal area. Obviously when I heard the diagnosis I was pretty shocked and found it tough to begin with. I think this was when the sport really helped, I was lucky I was fit and healthy. The resilience I had built up in sport really kicked in. From that point, I was able to push on, deal with it and manage it on a daily basis.

Oisin: How did the GAA family rally round you at this point?

Paddy: I was very private about things. Obviously my family knew and my colleagues at school and managers I was playing under knew because there were days when the performance levels weren’t what they needed to be and I felt that they needed an explanation. It wasn’t until I got involved in Declan Bogue’s book that it really became common knowledge, and the support was then great from that point of view.

Oisin: How are you continuing with the training at the minute?

Paddy: I was lucky enough to get my hands on a barbell before lockdown and I have that in the garage, so that helps a lot. Obviously I can’t do everything with it, but there is a lot that I can do. I’m also taking the dog for long walks. We all have GPS for the runs, so that is a good way for everyone to track what we are doing and be accountable to each other.

Oisin: Do Antrim work with leadership groups within the squad?

Paddy: Yeah, we have five groups with six or seven in each group. It works well and, as I say, we have the GPS to keep everyone right.

Oisin: You’ve been around Antrim a long time. How are you feeling about the current bunch of players?

Paddy: They’re a very good bunch. I think there are a lot of similarities between this bunch and the 2009 squad. They are honest and committed. I suppose the current squad lack that bit of experience. I think if we could keep this crew together and perhaps get Ryan Murray and Matthew Fitzpatrick back, that would give an extra layer of know-how that we need.

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Paddy with his wife Claire, children Aimee, Padraig and Aoife and Derry the dog!

Paddy with his wife Claire, children Aimee, Padraig and Aoife and Derry the dog!

Paddy with his wife Claire, children Aimee, Padraig and Aoife and Derry the dog!

 

Oisin: Any of these young lads we should be keeping an eye out for?

Paddy: Dominic McEnhill from Rossa, he played with Antrim Under-20s and was a starter with Jordanstown this year. If he keeps his head down and works hard, he can be special.

Oisin: What’s the biggest issue facing Antrim football?

Paddy: Well, there are a wide range of issues. Consistency is a massive thing. I suppose a lot of teams would say the same thing, but I’m not just talking performance-wise. More keeping 25 to 30 lads together for a few years and building it that way. Casement is a massive issue also.

Not knowing where you’re training or playing from week to week is annoying and doesn’t help when you’re searching for that consistency. I loved playing in Casement Park, and when I was growing up, I was aspiring to play there. The current crop of young players who are playing at under-age level don’t have that, which I think is a big issue. Being a dual county doesn’t hamper us as much as people might think — I think you’re only talking about a handful of players being affected. Also, Antrim just don’t have the sheer volume of players that, looking from the outside, you may expect.

Oisin: Has this break given you a greater desire to keep playing?

Paddy: Actually it makes you look at the other side of things, like spending time at home with the kids and just generally being around home a lot more. I’m 35

in a few weeks. I had said this would be my last year with Antrim, and with the possibility of no football, I’m really unsure of my plans now. County football is a huge commitment and I would still like to give a few years to the club, especially when we are going well, and we are there or thereabouts every year now.

Oisin: How can the GAA help counties like Antrim?

Paddy: Well, the Gaelfast initiative has been positive and Paul Donnelly, who is heading it up, is a fantastic lad. He has surrounded himself with a great team, but it will take time to see the fruits of their labour. However, for a county the size of Antrim and the volume of work needed, the money isn’t sufficient. Antrim needs those vital finances to keep coming. Casement, as I’ve already said, is crucial to all of this. Antrim needs a base for young players to aspire to play in some day. That is critical to our identity.

Oisin: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

Paddy: My family. My dad played at the highest level and I aspired to do the same. My mum was crucial. She brought me to and from training and matches. Without that I’d be nowhere.

Oisin: Antrim look set for Tier Two. How do you feel about that?

Paddy: In principle, I like the idea. There’s now a realistic chance for success — that is, providing it gets the same exposure and is marketed the same as Tier One. I think the GAA must be careful that it’s valued the same as the race for the Sam Maguire. If they do that, it should work well.

Oisin: Would you like to continue in football when you hang up your boots?

Paddy: I’m already sampling coaching in the school. Providing I’ve the appetite and hunger, I would love to coach. I’ve been lucky to have worked under some great people during my career, like Mickey Moran, Adrian McGuckian, Jody Gormley, Marty Lynch and Lenny Harbinson. I’d like to start by coaching my young lad with the club and take it from there.

Oisin: What player stands out most for you at the minute island-wide?

Paddy: David Clifford for me. To be doing what he is at his age is remarkable. He is a born leader and his skills off the left and right foot are incredible.

 

Belfast Telegraph