INPHO/Donall Farmer Galway hurling boss Anthony Cunningham.
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Cunningham supporting St Thomas drive for Galway club hurling glory
The county senior hurling manager will have a special interest in Sunday’s decider in Pearse Stadium.

THE ROOTS CANNOT be forgotten.

Anthony Cunningham has left Peterswell in South Galway with some years now.

Work as an engineer took him to Athlone, where his nine to five now sees him employed in software research at the local Institute of Technology

Home is in nearby Kiltoom in Roscommon, just over the county border. There he immersed himself in GAA matters with local club St Brigid’s and continued his football managerial career with a stint with Westmeath’s Garrycastle.

A hoard of silverware followed as between the two clubs Cunningham achieved six county senior titles and provincial crowns in Connacht and Leinster.

As a player he had enjoyed a successful inter-county hurling career with Galway and he was drawn back to the county in a management capacity. Last year he steered the Tribesmen to the All-Ireland U21 title and this year came close to ending the two decade absence of the Liam McCarthy Cup from the county.

Yet for all his exploits elsewhere, Cunningham is conscious of where his formative GAA years took place. As Galway senior boss he was always going to take a seat at next Sunday’s county final in Pearse Stadium.

But with his home club St Thomas appearing in their first ever senior decider, it is an occasion he will truly savour.

“It’s a fantastic time for any one associated with the club,” says Cunningham. “St Thomas would draw their players from two sister parishes, Peterswell and Kilchreest.

“Peterswell won Galway titles (seven between 1899 and 1907) on their own but like all rural clubs playing numbers became a problem. It’s a very small place. So the two parishes formed St Thomas in 1968.

“In my playing time we never managed to reach a final. The closest we came was when we were beaten in a county semi-final by a very good Athenry team that went on to win All-Ireland titles.”

Their rise has been founded on the unstinting work in developing underage talents and at the core of that has been the input of local families.

In 1981 Cunningham, just 15 at the time, was part of a Galway minor hurling team that came up short in the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny. At midfield on that side was clubmate John Burke, the current St Thomas manager.

Five of Burke’s sons Cathal, Sean, Darragh, Kenneth and David started in their recent semi-final replay win over Gort while another son 17 year-old Eanna came on as a substitute during the game.

“It’s very family based in the club as we have such small numbers,” outlines Cunningham. “John has done fantastic work. I’d have hurled with him for years. And a lot of the St Thomas lads have done well at county level. David and Darragh were both on the Galway senior squad this year.

“James Regan and Conor Cooney were also Galway seniors while Richie Murray played in the 2005 All-Ireland senior final. Bernard Burke was a Galway U21 last year. Conor and Richie would have brothers on the this team as well with Conor’s younger brother Shane getting the key goal against Gort the last day.”

St Thomas player Richie Murray in action for Galway. Pic: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

There is spice added to Sunday’s showdown by the identity of their opponents. Loughrea have a wealth of experience with appearances in five of the last nine county finals.

Yet it is the familiarity aspect that is most striking with the St Thomas club pitch on the N66 only eight miles from Loughrea and it is a town that the majority of the St Thomas players would have gone to school in.

Indeed David Burke and Loughrea’s Johnny Coen, a Galway senior teammate, are both currently eachers in St Brigid’s (Loughrea) in Woodwork and Metalwork.

“The parish runs from the outskirts of Loughrea to the outskirts of Gort,” says Cunningham. “So the two sets of players would know each other very well.

“It’s going to be a very tough task. Loughrea are battle-hardened and the best team for me in the championship so far.

“But it’s going to be a really special day for people involved with St Thomas. People like Gerry Kelly, John Fahey (the former Galway secretary) and the club chairman Joe Larkin have put in huge work over the years.

“When it’s your home club, you always keep in touch with it. I’ll be supporting them like everyone else from the parish on Sunday.”

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