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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 17 July, 2019
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After all he's achieved across both codes, is Anthony Cunningham still underrated?

The former Galway hurling boss guided Roscommon to a stunning victory against Mayo on Saturday night.

HAVING SHIPPED 10-92 en-route to their Division 1 relegation in the spring, there was little to suggest Roscommon were capable of pulling off ambush against the league champions in Castlebar.

Conor Cox celebrates Conor Cox celebrates at the full-time whistle. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Rossies actually started the league in decent shape, conceding an average of 12 points in their opening three games against Mayo, Monaghan and Tyrone where they picked up a draw and a win.

But shipping three goals in a heavy defeat to Cavan really dented their confidence. In their final four games, all of which they lost, their average concession rate soared to 21 points per game.

New manager Anthony Cunningham introduced a more defensive structure but it didn’t appear to be working. Only Sligo conceded more than Roscommon across all four tiers in the league. 

The odds were stacked against the visitors at the weekend. They hadn’t beaten Mayo in Connacht since 2001 and were without a championship victory over their neighbours in Castlebar since 1986. 

James Horan’s men were buoyed by their Division 1 final defeat of Kerry, which came off the back of a campaign where they unearthed plenty of promising young talent like Matthew Ruane and Darren Coen. 

Yet when the final whistle sounded in the fading light of MacHale Park, it was Cunningham who was swamped by euphoric supporters wearing primrose and blue.

The TV cameras followed the Galway native across the field as he digested the achievement. The footage showed a host of Roscommon supporters in their 50s and 60s embracing their manager, slapping his back, shaking his hand and offering words of congratulations.

It was a significant victory for Cunningham in his second championship game in charge. Cathal Cregg spoke afterwards about the “edge and belief” the manager instilled in his players. 

Anthony Cunningham Roscommon boss Anthony Cunningham. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The formed a wall around the defensive scoring zone, withdrawing Ultan Harney out to the middle third in addition to two deep-lying wing-forwards. It was no coincidence that Mayo shot 15 wides – Roscommon forced them into shooting from uncomfortable angles.

They sprang a surprise by bringing Andy Glennon into the attack – star of the Michael Glaveys team that made the All-Ireland intermediate final last year – alongside Conor Cox. 

Glennon kicked a point and intercepted Rob Hennelly’s kick-out to set-up Roscommon’s second goal.

Cox, the former Kerry senior panellist, won man-of-the-match after his five-point haul. He was enticed to switch his county allegiances by Cunningham in the off-season and it proved to be a shrewd piece of business.

Then there was the quality Roscommon brought in off the bench: Diarmuid Murtagh, Donie Smith, Brian Stack, Conor Devaney, Enda Smith and Fintan Cregg.

Compare that with the subs Mayo introduced: Andy Moran, Conor Diskin, Conor Loftus and Ciaran Tracey.

Conor Hussey celebrates at the final whistle Roscommon's Conor Hussey celebrates after the game. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Cunningham deserves great credit for how he cultivated the Roscommon panel and a good deal of his steel has clearly rubbed off on his players.  You’d imagine that the scuffle that broke out between both sets of players as they went in for half-time wouldn’t have upset him too much either. 

His past successes across hurling and football at club and county level shows he’s a quality man-manager. Looking back, it was a major boost for Roscommon to appoint a man of Cunningham’s experience.

Following Kevin McStay’s departure, Aidan O’Rourke had been heavily linked to the job but the former Armagh defender withdrew late in the day.

Cunningham’s appointment was somewhat of a surprise. He was believed to be in the running to take over from Pat Gilroy as Dublin hurling manager after serving as coach the previous campaign. 

But on 3 November, Cuala’s double-All-Ireland winning manager Mattie Kenny replaced Gilroy. Six days later, Cunningham was ratified as Roscommon boss.

His CV across both codes speaks for itself. 

Cunningham hails from Peterswell in Galway’s hurling heartland. The St Thomas’ club man had no inkling for the big ball as a youngster. Drafted into the county minor hurling set-up while still just 15, Cunningham would play in the first of his three All-Ireland finals at the grade that year. 

He rounded off his minor career by skippering Galway to their first ever All-Ireland minor title in 1983 against a Dublin team that featured future Ireland striker Niall Quinn. Three years later captained the U21s to All-Ireland glory and by that stage he was already a regular on the senior team.

Regarded as a skilfull and fast left-handed forward with a hurling brain to match, Cunningham would go on to line out in five Liam MacCarthy Cup deciders on the great Galway side of the late 1980s.

Anthony Cunningham and Ger Loughnane 1987 Galway's Cunningham and Ger Loughnane of Clare during a league clash in 1987. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He lifted the famous trophy on two occasions, in 1987 and 1988, in addition to a four Railway Cup medals. After the 1993 All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny, when Cunningham was an unused substitute, he retired from inter-county hurling.

His work as a computer engineer brought him to Athlone, where he still works in AIT. He set-up the family home in Kiltoom, on the Roscommon side of the border and home to the St Brigid’s club.

He was involved in the St Brigid’s development committee that helped develop the club’s impressive facilities during the mid-2000s: a floodlight main field that’s still used by the Roscommon seniors, a huge clubhouse with a bar and some surrounding training pitches. 

After a brief stint as Roscommon hurling manager in 2004 and despite his lack of football background, Cunningham was appointed as senior football boss of St Brigid’s in 2006. They were already county champions at that point, but Cunningham helped the Kiltoom outfit reach new heights. 

By the time he left at the end of 2008, they’d added two county titles and the club’s first ever Connacht crown – which arrived after Karol Mannion’s last-minute screamer downed Corofin in the 2006  final at Dr Hyde Park.

Manager Anthony Cunningham celebrates at the final whistle Cunningham celebrates after the 2006 Connacht club final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He moved on to Garrycastle across the Westmeath border in Athlone where more success followed. With Dessie Dolan in their ranks, Garrycastle won three Westmeath championships in-a-row and enjoyed a historic Leinster final victory in 2011.

They reached the All-Ireland final the following St Patrick’s Day where they fell to a Crossmaglen side at the peak of their powers.

From 2009 to 2011 he also served as Galway U21 manager and seven months after the Crossmaglen defeat, Cunningham won his first All-Ireland on the sideline. He brought in Mattie Kenny as one of his selectors and the pair helped steer the Tribesmen to U21 success in 2011.

A Galway outfit featuring Johnny Coen, Niall Donoghue (RIP), Niall Burke, David Burke, Conor Cooney and Davey Glennon delivered the crown with a 10-point win over Dublin at Semple Stadium.

The Galway team celebrate victory The Galway team celebrate their U21 victory in 2011. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Not long after that, he took charge of the Galway seniors. Cunningham cleared out the squad, dropping from his squad one-third of the XV that started the All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford in the previous campaign. 

He called up 18 members of his U21 squad and the overhaul worked. That July they hammered Kilkenny by 10 points to claim the Leinster crown. Cunningham guided them to the All-Ireland final – Galway’s first in seven years – as Joe Canning’s stoppage-time free send the first game to a replay, but the Cats prevailed on the second day out. 

Cullingham became known for his willingness to challenge Brian Cody on the sideline when they met Kilkenny, when other managers would shy away from such confrontation.

Brian Cody and Anthony Cunningham Brian Cody and Anthony Cunningham during the 2014 Leinster semi-final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In 2015, Galway fell to the Cats in the provincial decider but made it back to the All-Ireland final. They led Kilkenny by three points at the interval, although 1-7 from TJ Reid steered the Cats to glory. 

He resigned as manager that November having been the victim of a player heave against him. An influential group of players demanded change after the loss to the Cats and in his resignation statement, Cunningham said that outside influences were to blame for the coup.

He later described the experience as “soul-destroying” but remained involved in the club scene and worked with the Laois footballers in 2016. Last year, he coached the Dublin hurlers and was held in high esteem in both camps.

It’s been quite the journey for Cunningham. Success has generally followed him wherever he’s gone, but if he were to beat Mayo and Galway on the way to a Connacht title it would rank right up there with his finest achievements.

Mayo have been accounted for and now only his native county stand in the way of an unlikely provincial title.

Is he underrated? 

Perhaps, but after Saturday night, the people of Mayo are well aware of his talents.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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