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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 12 December, 2018
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'When the camera zoomed in on Lee Keegan crying on the pitch, it definitely did bring a lot of emotions'

New York skipper Tom Cunniffe endured the pain of Mayo’s last All-Ireland defeat just like the rest of their supporters.

Updated at 8:45

IT’S FAIR TO say Tom Cunniffe doesn’t have the happiest memories from All-Ireland finals.

He missed Donegal’s win over Mayo in the 2012 decider through injury, and was hauled off at half-time in their loss to Dublin the following September.

Conal Keaney and Tom Cunniffe Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

On St Patrick’s Day in 2014 and 2016, Cunniffe lost All-Ireland club finals with Castlebar Mitchels to St Vincent’s and Ballyboden St Enda’s respectively. After the latter loss, he decided to pack up his bags and go see the world.

Initially, the plan was to head for Australia, but some friends persuaded him to spend the summer in New York. It wasn’t a hard sell. Cunniffe was determined to make the most of his first summer free from senior inter-county football in over a decade.

No more gym programmes, protein shakes or recovery sessions.

“After a few weeks, I said I’d stay here for a bit longer,” he says from the Big Apple. “I hadn’t planned to play football at all.”

But before long he was submerged in the New York camp, driving the thing forward. Glutton for punishment.

And because of his Mayo roots, he still had to endure All-Ireland finals in a way. No longer one of the warriors in the arena, but Cunniffe still felt his heart sink in a familiar way at the full-time whistle.

This time it was from 3,000 miles away. In 2016, he watched their one-point loss to Dublin from his house in New York. In 2017, he said he’d “do something different.” He headed for The Long Hall in Manhattan. Same result. Dublin by a point. Same anguish.

“It was definitely tough watching that game,” he says. “When I first got in there, I was in with a good few of my friends and I was very quiet.

Lee Keegan dejected after the game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“But the emotions after a while, as the game was getting closer to the end, it was hard to sit down. I was just constantly moving. At the end of the game when the camera zoomed in on Lee Keegan crying on the pitch, it definitely did bring a lot of emotions.”

He won’t be winning any All-Irelands with New York, but later this evening he could be a part of a different type of history. The Exiles haven’t won a championship game since entering the competition in 1999, but optimism has been high around Yonkers that might be about to change. Jamie Clarke signing up to your cause tends to have that effect.

The addition of Neil Collins has been far less hyped, but it’s equally important to their chances.

“There’s just a very good atmosphere, that was one of the big things,” Cunniffe says about what attracted him to join Justin O’Halloran’s squad.

“There are times it is enjoyable, but at the same time I do love a good challenge. I always look at these triathletes and marathon runners. I always think, why the hell do they even do it? It’s a challenge.”

Jamie Clarke with Tom Cunniffe Cunniffe and Clarke were well-acquainted from club duty Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

New York had to endure weather disruptions in the preparations too. “We were working around the weather,” he explains. “There was snow, it was cold. We didn’t have to prepare for a team every weekend.

“We were just preparing for this game, so we were just constantly training and playing in-house games. It was different, a lot different (to home).”

Cunniffe was just 29 when he kicked his last ball for Mayo in 2015. On the road since John O’Mahony handed him his debut in 2007, Cunniffe felt he hadn’t any more to give.

“It’s definitely not a regret. After the 2015 season, I decided that my body couldn’t take it anymore, the training was so rigorous. Trying to actually play the games without training that much, I just couldn’t take it anymore.”

He was about six months in New York when he made headlines back home.

In December 2016, Cunniffe was critical in a newspaper interview of the decision by the Mayo players to oust then managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly 14 months earlier.

“We treated them badly. They should never have had to resign. They deserved a lot better from us,” Cunniffe told the Irish Independent.

Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Speaking now about his decision to go public, Cunniffe says he wasn’t concerned he would create a rift with his former team-mates.

“What happened with that decision, I just felt like as a team we made the wrong decision. Obviously, there was a lot of guys that were going the opposite direction. There was obviously going to be a conflict with some players, but that was expected.

“At the same time, I didn’t name any players. I didn’t want to get into that because I don’t think that’s the right way of doing it whatsoever. I was coming from a point of view as a team where I just felt it was very wrong.

“Pat Holmes, he played with Castlebar Mitchels for years, he was our manager with the club and it was just very unexpected when there was a vote.”

He explains he’s still in touch with members of the Mayo squad. “Snapchat is good that way. I wouldn’t be getting into too much detail with them because they don’t try to let too much information out. I’m definitely looking forward to see how they’ll do this year.

“We all know Lee is a huge, huge player. He’s a driving force in that half-back line. There’s one thing about the Mayo lads, they just have that fire in them. I know we haven’t won the All-Ireland yet, but they’re just going to keep driving on. They’ll never give up.”

Tom Cunniffe and David Kelly

The All-Ireland senior football championship slowly rolls out of the station this weekend, but there is no action on the island itself. Instead, Gaelic Park and Ruislip will do the honours and hopes are high there will be at least one group of ex-Pats celebrating this weekend.

Will it be New York, on the 90th anniversary of the first game to take place in Gaelic Park? Cunniffe, their captain this season, is feeling good about their chances.

“Every game I go into, I’m always very confident. Even if it’s a friendly game, I want to give it 100% and the players are the exact same. They have that same mindset.

“We’re under no illusions whatsoever. In 20 years New York have never won a game. We really want to change that. Leitrim are a very good team. I’ve played against them with Mayo and they are a very, very good team.

“We are confident in every game we play. Corofin came out there, All-Ireland champions. We prepared, we went through everything, we were confident in our abilities.

“Leitrim do get a bad rap. I’ve played them numerous times and they are a good team. They’re going to show serious hunger.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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