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'The more Irish here, the better': Preston's strong Ireland contingent aim to shock Arsenal

Defender Greg Cunningham is hoping the Championship side will surprise Arsene Wenger’s men in the FA Cup this evening.

Cunningham joined Preston from Bristol City in 2015.
Cunningham joined Preston from Bristol City in 2015.
Image: EMPICS Sport

Updated 11.55

FOR THE FORESEEABLE future, the eyes of many Irish football fans will be drawn to the happenings at Championship club Preston North End.

It’s not surprising. The recent additions of League of Ireland stars Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan from Dundalk increases the number of Irish players in the club’s first-team squad to six.

The duo are joined in Lancashire by promising midfielder Alan Browne, former Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers striker Eoin Doyle, winner of 86 Ireland caps Aiden McGeady, who is on-loan from parent club Everton, as well as left-back Greg Cunningham.

In fact, Cunningham is one of the most highly-regarded players at the club, and was named the team’s Player of the Year by the supporters at the end of last season, while also picking up the Players’ Player of the Year award.

And the Galway native sees no reason why Boyle and Horgan, who are available to face Arsenal in their third-round FA Cup tie this evening, can’t make a similar impact, while adding to the growing Irish influence at the club.

“They are two great lads,” Cunningham tells the42. “They will find their feet. They are at a good age to move away from home, and will adapt very quickly.”

Historically, Preston have always had a strong Irish connection, with local boys Mark Lawrenson and Kevin Kilbane going on to play for their hometown club, before representing Ireland on the international stage.

Goalkeepers Alan Kelly Sr and his son, Alan Kelly Jr, were involved in the first-team for a combined 22 years, with the latter also born in the town and is now a coach at the club.

Preston Ireland Lawrenson, Kelly Jr and Kilbane are three former Ireland internationals that played for Preston.

Former Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell is another notable Irishman that was on Preston books, as well as Ray Treacy, Mick Martin, Michael Robinson and more recently, Sean St Ledger. While Dubliner Brian Mooney finished second behind the legendary Tom Finney in Preston’s all-time cult hero vote.

And this week Cork side Ringmahon Rangers launched a new partnership with Preston as a pathway to bring their players to the club, which was driven by the success of Rangers graduate Browne and newly-recruited youth player Adam O’Reilly.

“The more Irish here, the better – the more, the merrier,” Cunningham declares about the Irish influx at Deepdale.

The 25-year-old celebrated his 200th appearance in English league football in Monday’s 1-0 win at Burton Albion, 67 of which have come for his current club.

A disappointing end to his time at former club Bristol City saw first-team chances become increasingly limited for the defender, resulting in Cunningham joining Simon Grayson’s side in the summer of 2015.

“Preston has been great. I had a tough time at Bristol City, where I didn’t get a lot of football. The move was a no-brainer. It is a great club with a good fanbase,” Cunningham continues.

“It was great for me to reach that landmark – a dream come true. All I’ve ever wanted to do is play football, so I’m very proud. I want to kick on now.”

Cunningham, who started his career with Mervue United before joining the Manchester City Academy in 2007, was a casualty of the cash-injection from Sheikh Mansour in 2o08 that helped transform the club into one of the Premier League heavyweights, attracting some of the best players in the world.

Under manager Roberto Mancini, Cunningham managed five first-team appearances, spanning the Premier League, the Europa League and the two domestic cup competitions.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester City v Birmingham City - City of Manchester Stadium Cunningham made two Premier League appearances for Manchester City. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

After making his breakthrough at City, Cunningham earned his first senior Ireland cap in 2010, starting in the friendly against Algeria in the RDS.

Cunningham then went on to win another three caps under Giovanni Trapattoni – all in friendlies – which included the first football international at the newly-opened Aviva Stadium, when an Angel Di Maria goal saw Ireland lose 1-0 to Argentina.

With current manager Martin O’Neill preferring to alter between a rejuvenated Stephen Ward and the versatile Robbie Brady at left-back, Cunningham has struggled to force his way into the Derryman’s plans – but that doesn’t mean he has given up hope of earning international recognition for his fine club form.

Greg Cunningham and Daniel Lukasik Cunningham playing for Ireland against Poland. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“I have to keep working hard at club level, doing what I can do here. But I’d be more than happy to take it,” Cunningham says on the prospect of a future call-up.

His final appearance for Manchester City came against Romanian outfit Timisoara in an Europa League qualifier when players of the quality such as Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez were included in the matchday squad, highlighting the talent Mancini had his disposal.

Frustration of a lack of opportunities to impress led to Cunningham having loan spells under former City boss Sven-Goran Eriksson at Leicester City, which was followed by a stint at Nottingham Forest, before the permanent switch to Bristol City in 2012.

Nottingham Forest v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground Cunningham has again impressed for Preston this season. Source: EMPICS Sport

One way to catch O’Neill’s eye though would be to put in an impressive performance against Arsenal at Deepdale tonight.

The romanticism of a cup shock still appeals to Cunningham despite dwindling interest from clubs and supporters across England in recent years, with the allure of the Premier League failing to fade in the background.

But a sell-out home crowd expects Preston to give Arsenal somewhat of a scare, and Cunningham feels that the glamour tie can act as a significant platform.

invincibles

Both Preston (1888-89) and Arsenal (2003-04) sides earned the nickname ‘The Invincibles’ after going unbeaten in a league season. Preston also won the FA Cup in 1889.

“There are lots of question marks over how teams rate cup competitions.

“We played on Monday and had a full week to prepare, and there’s not another game until the following Saturday. I can’t see why the team won’t give everything.

“It helps build momentum and a winning feeling, the cup can be just as important.

“I’d expect a few changes for Arsenal, but they have such strength in depth that the team they will put out will be world class. But we will give it all we have to cause a shock.”

Having said that, Preston may be forgiven for forgoing the cup to concentrate on the Championship, with the club just six points below Sheffield Wednesday, who currently occupy the final play-off spot.

After four years away from the second tier, Preston finished in a creditable 11th place in the league last season, and to be in the mix for promotion would be a significant achievement for a club with one of the division’s smallest budgets.

“I don’t see why not [be in the mix for promotion], we are firmly in the chase. The main goal this season was to improve on last year, but we are not getting carried away,” Cunningham says.

Steady progress has seemed to work well for Cunningham, so far.

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