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The 34-year-old who battled serious illness returning to county football after 6 years

Prolific forward Paddy Cunningham is back in the Antrim fold for the first time since 2014.

HE TURNS 35 this year, hasn’t played at inter-county level in six years and has suffered from the debilitating Crohn’s disease since 2011, but Paddy Cunningham has made an unlikely return to the Antrim football squad this season. 

patrick-cunningham Paddy Cunningham takes a free during the 2019 Antrim SFC final. Source: Philip Magowan/INPHO

As the average age of county players continues to drop, Cunningham is bucking the trend. 

The most obvious place to start is, why?

“I’d always planned to go back,” he tells The42. “I’d never retired in my head.”

A Sigerson Cup winner with the University of Jordanstown in 2008 where he played in a full-forward line alongside Andy Moran and Mark Lynch, the prolific left-footed forward was one of Antrim’s leading lights since he arrived on the scene as a teenager in the mid-noughties.

He was 28 when he last kicked a ball for the county, scoring seven points in their round 2 qualifier exit to Limerick in 2014. The birth of his second child, Padraig, that year prompted Cunningham to hop off the carousel for a season.

One year became two. Life took over and before Cunningham knew it six years had passed. His inter-county days looked to be behind him. 

“As time goes on I sort of felt that maybe it was too late to go back to an extent,” he admits. “It just never materialised.”

Since making his debut with the senior hurlers aged 17, he’d given 12 years of unbroken service to the Saffrons across both codes. At the same time, he was also representing his club Lámh Dhearg and college Jordanstown in both football and hurling.

The grind of inter-county football is more difficult to sustain in the lower tiers when the rewards from playing are less obvious.

Something had to give.

“It was draining mentally and it took its toll on the body. It became a chore after 10 or 11 years. I sort of planned to take a year out to try and get refreshed, and I never ended up going back up until now.

“Probably the biggest aspect of the break now is the fact that you’re going to training and enjoying it. Because it did help having that separation for a while, that mental break. 

“Now I’ve had that break and I focused on family life and club for a long time, which I thoroughly enjoyed but at the same time club will always come first for me. They’re the people who’ve obviously made all our county players so it’s very important to me. 

“But I’m definitely getting enjoyment out of it. I think the biggest point for me was the psychological aspect. I was playing for Antrim and it felt like a chore more than a pleasure. Whereas now I definitely feel like that the batteries are recharged and I’m ready to go.”

paddy-cunningham Cunningham captained Antrim in the 2009 Ulster final against Tyrone. Source: Cathal Noonan

Cunningham’s return is even more remarkable considering he has been fighting Crohn’s disease for the past decade. 

In 2009, he captained Antrim to their first Ulster final in 39 years. He scored 0-11 that afternoon but they lost by six points to reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone in the provincial decider. Later that summer, they gave eventual Sam Maguire winners Kerry a major fright in the backdoor – losing by just five.

But an even greater battle lay just around for corner for Cunningham.

His 2011 diagnosis with the inflammatory bowel disease was life-changing. The years since have involved the physical and mental side-effects from the powerful medication he takes to keep the condition in check. 

“It has taken its toll,” he says.

“Obviously there have been ups and downs over the years with medication and stuff, that’s had an effect. I’ve lost my hair as a result of the medication and that was a challenge for me to deal with on its own too.

“I’m on medication and I get a transfusion every eight weeks. The best way to describe it is probably like batteries. You’re full of energy for four or five weeks but you do feel yourself lacking a bit of energy for the two weeks or 10 days leading up to the next transfusion.

“But I suppose at the same time I’m lucky enough to still be in a position to play county football at 34.”

paddy-cunningham Cunningham during his early days on the Antrim team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He had to pack in hurling along the way too.

“I played both codes the whole way through my life,” he continues. “I love hurling as much as I love Gaelic but something had to give.

“So I suppose there has been a detrimental effect that I haven’t lifted a hurl now and played for I’d say seven or eight years, even for the club.”

He has been assured that returning to the inter-county game – with its ever-increasing physical demands – does not bring a health risk.

“There’s no risk as such. Just managing the load and being sensible about things. If anything the training helps to keep it sort of under control.

“Obviously looking after your diet and nutrition helps. Every case is different but I know personally I’ve been quite lucky. I’ve had one surgery probably nine or 10 years ago. There’s a high risk of another surgery within three years, 70% have had to get another one.

“I’m dealing with a consultant and he’s delighted with how the condition has handled itself over the last decade. He feels a large part of that is through positive mental attitude but also exercising and looking after your body as best you can.”

Through it all, Cunningham was able to maintain his focus on the field, even as he was suffering off it. His optimistic outlook on life is evident throughout our conversation.

“It’s probably something I’ve done more-so in my latter years,” he says. “It is probably something that any sporting person usually has within themselves – being strong and trying to be as positive as possible.

“These things, if you let them get to you and you think about them too much and dwell on things, then they’ll have a negative impact. Whereas I’ve always tried to live a normal life as best I can.

“I’ve always tried to be physically active and I think being positive about the condition rather than dwelling in self-pity and being negative about it has definitely been helpful to me over the course of having it and dealing with it day-to-day.

“I try and stay as positive about things as possible as you can.” 

lamh-dherag-players-during-the-national-anthem Lamh Dherag players during the national anthem before their recent county final. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

He continued lining out for Lámh Dhearg, clipping over 0-8 to help them lift their first Antrim SFC title in 25 years back in 2017, which he describes as “a special moment and something which I’ll never forget.”

Last year they embarked on a marathon run to the county final where they eventually lost to Cargin after a replay in the second period of extra-time. He rolled back the years with a 10-point haul in the quarter-final, while he posted 3-9 in the three-game semi-final epic against Portglenone.

An eight-point tally on the second day out against Cargin wasn’t enough to prevent the Hannahstown team from falling to defeat.

“To be honest it was a tough one to take. I suppose given the journey with three semi-finals to play, two replays and extra-time and whatever else happened in the semi-final.

“I suppose the disappointing fact was we probably should have won the final the first day out. We were in total control of the game and credit to Cargin, they’re worthy champions and they showed their experience in not panicking. 

“Listen, it is a difficult one to take but we’ve had a long winter now to get our heads around it.” 

It consigned Cunningham to his sixth county final loss, but not long after Lenny Harbinson offered him a return from the inter-county wilderness. 

The Antrim boss had broached the subject with Cunningham at a club game earlier in the year.

“I told him I’d need to see how the club campaign went first before he wasted his time for want of a better term or if it was even worth his while having a coffee. And he said, ‘Sure nothing ventured, nothing gained.’

“So once the club season was concluded then he gave me a call to meet up for a coffee and a chat.”

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lenny-harbinson Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson. Source: Declan Roughan/INPHO

Some doubts crept into Cunningham’s mind. 

“Obviously I have a young family, I’ve three children so I needed to speak to my wife about the commitment and sacrifices that would need to happen in family life in terms of playing county football. 

“So there was a lot to think about and I was asking myself did I still have something to offer? Was it going to be worthwhile for myself to go back into the team? Would I make any impact on the team? Would I be a help to the set-up as a whole? I suppose there were a lot of questions I had to answer for myself as well.”

Another veteran player, Tomas McCann has also been enticed back into the set-up. Their return to the panel comes at a time when Antrim have lost star forward Matthew Fitzpatrick to Irish league outfit Coleraine, while last year’s top scorer Ryan Murray has moved to Dubai.

The number of players from the lower divisions who’ve decided not to play for their counties in 2020 has been a topic of national debate in recent weeks, but Cunningham doesn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing.

He regrets not taking a year out in his mid-20s rather than continuing to chug along when the enjoyment factor had left him. 

“It’s been well-documented in the media about players with a high-profile not returning to county set-ups this year but I do feel it’s probably something that I should have done earlier myself and came back sooner rather than leaving it to now.

“Because it does take its toll on the body and I think a lot of it is down to the mental aspect. It’s such a large commitment, everybody is looking for the best from you all the time at county level and then you have your club on top of that.

paddy-cunningham-with-alan-mcnamee Cunningham tackles Offaly's Alan McNamee during a league meeting. Source: ©William Cherry/Presseye

“There’s so much commitment required. If you’re doing it for so long it can become a chore rather than a pleasure and that’s what none of us want to happen to ourselves but that’s inevitably what is happening.

“At the end of the day I do hope and fully expect that the boys who stepped away for a year this year will be back in the years to come. I know from my own perspective and from talking to other boys seems to be the case.

“It’s just so much. You’re coming straight out of school and college football, Fitzgibbon or Sigerson or whatever it is, you’re playing county minor, U21, straight into the seniors, you’re playing club as well.

“There’s other aspects to life and I think young people now are more aware of that than they’ve ever been in terms of travel and trying to gain life experience rather than having everything focused around Gaelic Games, which is obviously still very important to people but there’s a bigger world out there.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly more prevalent that young people are seeing that.”

With two months of training under his belt, Cunningham’s second act begins this afternoon with a start against Paul Galvin’s Wexford in their Division 4 opener.

Promotion from the basement division is the “primary objective” for the Saffrons.

And for Cunningham?

‘If I can bring the younger lads on (it would be great) because there’s the spine of a good team there. There’s a good nucleus of youth there who can develop over the next couple of years.

“But hopefully I’ll have an impact on the pitch and that’s what I’m looking for first and foremost.”

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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