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Leaving Galway to join Man City as a 16-year-old, multiple leg breaks and chasing Premier League promotion

Ireland international and Preston full-back Greg Cunningham chats to The42 about his career in football.

Ireland international Greg Cunningham has quickly established himself as a key player at Preston.
Ireland international Greg Cunningham has quickly established himself as a key player at Preston.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

AFTER PUTTING GREG Cunningham’s name into Google, you are likely to come across more than one article with the word ‘warrior’ in the copy.

The Galway native has had some tough breaks, both literally and figuratively, over the past few years.

One particular incident gained plenty of traction last April. During a game for Preston at home to Norwich, Cunningham picked up an injury. It felt sore, but he continued on playing and tried to run it off before eventually being taken from the field on a stretcher. Afterwards, the player discovered he had fractured his leg.

“He’s a top lad and tried to carry on,” then-Preston boss Simon Grayson said at the time. “A brave, brave player, one of the best players that I signed at this football club and it’s unfortunate that this incident has happened.”

Given his reputation as someone who doesn’t flinch easily, it’s no surprise that when reflecting on the incident now, Cunningham plays it down.

“There’s a plate in there from when I (broke my leg at) 19,” he tells The42. “As far as I was concerned, I thought it was unbreakable.

“It was only minor, a hairline fracture. At the time, it was sore, but I was thinking ‘it couldn’t be broke, there’s a plate there’.

I tried getting back, we were defending a free kick against the opposition. The pain wasn’t going away, so I had a feeling then that there was something up.

“I went to the hospital straight away [after the game] and it showed up that there was a small hairline [break].

“It was very unfortunate. There were only three games to go [in the campaign], but it obviously meant resting up and getting my rehab sorted to make sure I was in good nick for pre-season at the beginning of July.”

The timing could have been worse though, as the club’s defeat that day ended their faint hopes of promotion from the Championship, leaving the team with little other than pride to play for during the remainder of the campaign.

The 26-year-old, who has four Ireland caps, worked hard over the summer to recover his fitness. Another setback was to follow, however. Just three games into this season and days after he had been called up to Martin O’Neill’s squad for qualifiers against Georgia and Serbia, Cunningham sustained another long-term injury, leaving him requiring surgery on his knee.

I obviously worked hard in pre-season after the minor leg break at the end of last season. I was feeling good — the gaffer had given me the captaincy in the absence of (Tom) Clarkey. Everything was positive, and then the last couple of minutes in the Derby game, I’ve just had an awkward landing and ended up doing some damage.

“But that’s football. It’s part and parcel of the game. I got my head around it, got the operation done straight away and started my rehab.”

Barnsley v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - Oakwell Cunningham has had his problems with injury both before and since joining Preston. Source: EMPICS Sport

It has consequently been a frustrating few months for Cunningham, but he is back in first-team action now. He made his return on 29 December in the 1-0 win away to Cardiff, going on to feature in recent clashes with Wycombe and Millwall.

“The body feels great. I keep getting reminded I’ve had four months off,” he says.

“It’s a long enough road with the recovery from an unfortunate injury, but credit to the medical department and fitness coach — they’ve got me back in great shape again.

Obviously, it will take a few more games to get the sharpness back, but I’m feeling really good.”

Yet Cunningham’s misfortune will have been put into perspective by the recent death of Sean McCaffrey, the coach who he worked with at underage level.

In 2008, the Preston star was part of the McCaffrey-managed Irish team that were one of eight sides competing in the U17 European Championships in Turkey. Other notable players on that team — who narrowly lost all three group matches against France, Switzerland and Spain — included Richie Towell, Robbie Brady and Conor Hourihane.

“I had Sean [as a coach] from U17s to U19s level. We worked together for the guts of four years, so I was terribly saddened by his passing,” he says.

“We obviously had a successful U17s campaign getting to the finals in Turkey.

“He worked very hard with us, for the crop of players we had at that age group, he moulded us into a very good team that was full of great individuals.

“There was always an attention to detail with match preparation, and if we weren’t up to scratch, he wasn’t long letting us know.

We played a friendly in Finland and at half-time, we were winning at that stage, but Sean wasn’t too happy with the performance and let us know about it — he was never one to shy away from that.

“I always admired his passion for the game and that would be what sticks with me the most — he was a very passionate manager and loved football, you could see that in the way we were coached and in how he managed.

“[The Ireland underage squads] spent a lot of time together, especially in our first years in England, when we went through the qualifying stages for the U19 Euros, which were in Galway.

“Along with Joe Boyle, the assistant manager, [Sean] was someone you could go and talk to if there was ever anything on your mind.

“He created a great atmosphere around the place, especially between games. We were 15 and 16-year-olds away for qualifiers in Galway — there was some great downtime.

“He was strict when it came to the matches, but he did really get the best out of us. That’s how you can be judged as a manager and off the field, you could clearly see the type of man he was.”

The Ireland Under 17 squad Cunningham was part of the Ireland U17 team that competed at the European Championships in Turkey in 2008. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Around the time he was working with McCaffrey, Cunningham was also impressing in Man City’s youth ranks. He moved to the Premier League club from Mervue United when he was just 16 years of age in 2007 and having acquired a reputation as a promising striker/left winger in Ireland, the versatile teenager was converted into a full-back following the big move.

Two years later, the starlet briefly returned home to complete his Leaving Cert, after undertaking one-to-one tuition while in England.

“It’s something that the majority of Irish kids [who want to be professional footballers] do,” he says.

“I was relishing the opportunity to go over and play football full-time with my education there as well.

It was something I always wanted to do, so I never had an issue with homesickness, or [it was never] something I wasn’t committed to.

“It was a tough transition going from training pretty much every day in comparison to a couple of days at home, but I loved it.”

And was Cunningham ever worried that, like the majority of Irish youngsters with dreams of a career in professional football, he wouldn’t make it ultimately?

“I didn’t really think too much into that side of things — I think I was just loving playing football.

I do think there are so many modern footballers from the west of Ireland that might not get the same opportunity as players from Dublin, because scouts don’t really come that far west.

“But being involved with the Irish team [helped]. We had a cup-winning team as well [in Galway], so that gave me a bit more exposure as well for trials and stuff in England.”

The City side Cunningham signed for was a completely different animal to Pep Guardiola’s current outfit. Thaksin Shinawatra was chairman, Sven-Göran Eriksson was manager and former Brazil international Elano finished the season as top scorer. The likes of Richard Dunne, Dietmar Hamann, Stephen Ireland and Darius Vassell were also key members of the first team.

By the time Cunningham left, five years later, sweeping changes had been implemented. The squad had a different calibre of player, with stars including Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure on board for this burgeoning project. Roberto Mancini was manager, while Khaldoon Al Mubarak owned the club by then.

When Cunningham joined initially, Michael Ball was the first-team’s regular left-back. A year before he left, Gael Clichy was brought in from Arsenal for £10 million, while a combined £26 million had already been spent on Wayne Bridge and Aleksandar Kolarov in the intervening period.

Nevertheless, there had previously been some encouraging signs for Cunningham. In 2008, he was part of the City team that made it to the FA Youth Cup semi-finals.

Aged 18, the young Irishman made his debut for City’s first team in a 4-2 victory against Scunthorpe in the FA Cup. He would make two more first-team appearances towards the end of the 2009-10 season, coming off the bench for late Premier League appearances against Birmingham and West Ham. His progress within the English side’s set-up prompted Giovanni Trapattoni to call Cunningham up for the Ireland squad based on a recommendation from Mancini. While still a teenager, he would make his international debut the following May in a 3-0 friendly win over Algeria, winning three more caps for the Boys in Green thereafter, the most recent of which came in 2013.

The following season, he made two more appearances for City, in the Europa League and League Cup. Yet that was as far as he got in terms of first-team action for the Premier League side. He spent time on loan in the Championship, first with Leicester and then Nottingham Forest the following season.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers - Etihad Stadium Two months after Man City won their first-ever Premier League title, Cunningham left the club having made a handful of first-team appearances. Source: EMPICS Sport

Unfortunately, a broken leg suffered while playing for the Foxes curtailed his progress. And ultimately, with his parent club intent on bringing in expensive and experienced full backs, rather than trusting in youngsters brought up through the academy system, Cunningham was left with little option but to leave Manchester.

So, two months after Mancini’s side had been crowned Premier League champions for the first time following a dramatic last-day 3-2 victory over QPR, the Irish international signed with Bristol City, after an undisclosed fee was agreed between the clubs.

You could see that transformation from when I first arrived [at City] — the money then started to flow,” he recalls.

“You could see the improvement in facilities and the world-class players coming through the door, so it was an exciting time for the club and you can see obviously where they are now.”

But was this influx of cash at the club damaging to Cunningham’s career, given that it meant his first-team chances in the top flight became increasingly limited, as the English side went from being a mid-table outfit to Premier League champions with a near-endless supply of resources over the course of the Irish defender’s time there?

“It’s hard for any player in a Premier League team coming through to get thrown in and get first-team football with the pressure on managers nowadays for success and for results — it’s a tough business. You can see more so nowadays with the pressure managers would hesitate slightly in putting young players in.

When there’s a lot of money and they can afford to spend ‘x’ amount on world-class players, it does limit your chances, but at the same time, I had a great education [at City] and a few appearances.”

During Cunningham’s first year at Bristol City, the club were relegated from the Championship. But having been one of their most impressive performers as they subsequently succeeded in escaping League One two years later, he was snapped up by Preston.

The Galwegian left-back made a swift impact at the Lilywhites, as he was named the club’s player of the season following his first full campaign there. A virtual ever-present when available, Cunningham has continued to impress since then, with Alex Neil’s side currently 10th and two points off the Championship play-off spots.

Hull City v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - KCOM Stadium Sean Maguire has impressed since joining Preston from Cork City. Source: EMPICS Sport

Cunningham, who reportedly saw a seven-figure bid for his services from Cardiff rejected last August, is part of a sizeable Irish contingent at Deepdale — Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan, Kevin O’Connor, Sean Maguire, Alan Browne and Eoin Doyle are also currently on the books at the club.

“Obviously, when Irish boys come over, you do try to make an added effort [to help them settle],” he adds.

It’s not easy for anyone to move city or move home — especially moving country for something you love, it can be tough at times. We have a great dressing room, it wasn’t just me, everyone was sort of helping the boys out in any way they could. But the [Irish] boys have done well. Seanie’s had a tough break, because he he’d been in great form, he’s doing his rehab really well and is obviously itching to get back.

“It is understandable when players come from new clubs, or come over from different countries, it does take time to adapt to everyday football, a new squad, getting used to players and getting used to how the gaffer wants you to play.

“With the Irish league being a summer league, the likes of Daryl [Horgan] and [Andy] Boyler would have been going for about 18 months straight.

“So when they came over, the Irish season was finished and it was halfway through our season, they’ve literally come in and gone again. Obviously, it is tough and there’s a lot of factors coming in, but credit to the boys coming over, they’ve really hit the ground running and we’re delighted to have them in the club.”

With no competitive fixtures to think about in the near future, Ireland boss Martin O’Neill recently suggested he would be open to giving less experienced players a chance, so Cunningham might well win his first senior cap for over five years at some point in 2018. And while he is hopeful this chance will come, for now, his focus is purely on Preston’s game at home to Birmingham later today.

It may not be quite as glamorous as Man City but given the various injuries he has suffered, Cunningham appreciates how fortunate he is to be fit and playing football for a living in the Championship.

Despite his failure to make the grade at the Etihad, you get the sense that he is a man of few regrets.

There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in everyday life and especially football, but what happened [has] happened and I am where I am for a reason.

“I always say ‘what’s for you won’t pass you by,’ and I think everything does happen for a reason.

“There are moments in my career that possibly would be slight turning points, but I am at Preston and I’m very happy, and thank god I’m making a good career and enjoying my football.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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