Funny old game has last laughs


SOCCER: Emmet Malone talks to Republic of Ireland captain Kenny Cunningham about the high-profile downs but mostly heart-warming ups of a never less than eventful year

To come across a Premiership footballer these days who retains some small grasp on what life is like in the outside world may seem like a rare and rather precious thing. But as Kenny Cunningham reflects on the year just ending, he comes across, and not for the first time, as a character so ordinary that his achievements during more than a decade in the professional game have never quite sunk in.

During the run-up to the holiday season, newspapers have had a field day hanging around the game's equivalent of office parties, but with less than a week to go before Christmas Cunningham was sitting at home pursuing not a photographer, as the players at a club he was once linked with did recently, but that most elusive of creatures . . . a plumber.

That, in fact, is only one of the 31-year-old Dubliner's rather every-day priorities just now. Having finally moved into his new home on the outskirts of Birmingham after six months renting, there is much work to be done. Rather charmingly, Cunningham is having a good deal of difficulty getting the required people around.

Briefly there appears to be a basis for a genuine exchange of experiences, although when Cunningham mentions, with a hint of genuine sympathy in his voice, that everybody he has called is just so busy at this time of year, the newly-established rapport breaks down and we quickly revert to dwelling on what has been quite a year for the defender.

It reads, in fact, like a magazine quiz aimed at establishing whether you are a "half-full" or a "half-empty" sort of guy.

How, it might ask, do you view the following.

1. You return from long lay-off due to injury and re-establish yourself in Irish team set-up in time for World Cup. Having reached Japan, however, you lose your place again and end up sitting out almost all of the Republic's four games.

2. To your great surprise, team manager calls you aside at training and tells you that you are new captain of your national team. Almost immediately, though, results go belly up, prospects of team qualifying for next major tournament become much remote, and manager resigns.

3. Desperate for cash, your club does everything bar advertise you in Buy and Sell, only for a newly-promoted Premiership club with a much bigger following to come in and sign you on a very long-term deal. The club, on the other hand, are widely fancied to go straight back down and your role in the team suggests that every time they concede a goal, you are liable to receive some portion of the blame.

Others in the game may see the negative side of these scenarios, but as he sits back, calmly sets the Yellow Pages to one side for a moment and reflects on all that has happened to him during the past 12 months Cunningham has few doubts about just how fortunate he has been.

The World Cup stands out, of course, and the fact that Gary Breen rather than he ended up partnering Steve Staunton scarcely seems to register as a setback with a man who points to the fact that it could have been worse, much worse.

"Mick (McCarthy) took me aside at training before the Cameroon game and told me I wouldn't be playing and it was bad news, obviously it was," he says. "But it was a great honour to be there and all of us were conscious of the fact that being at something like a World Cup meant more to the supporters back home than what individuals played."

The participation, or otherwise, of one individual, of course, stood out somewhat and Cunningham hasn't quite forgotten the fact that the week in Saipan was dominated by endless speculation over whether Roy Keane would stay or go.

"It was a bit strange because on the one hand we were on this beautiful tropical island, it was a nice hotel, and we had a private stretch of beach to ourselves, and it was great, but there was all this talk about Roy and what would happen with him.

"What happened in the end was a shame; one of the world's best players didn't get to play at the World Cup, but the rest of us, well, after we arrived in Japan it seemed to affect us less because it felt like the World Cup was starting for real. Then the games came up and I think we were all focused enough on what a big event this was in all of our lives and just start putting it out of our minds, really."

He relishes the memories of the two games he came on in, particularly the match against Spain when, for an hour, he looked outstanding at the heart of the Irish defence. What followed, though, is best forgotten, as Ireland slumped to disappointing defeats in Russia and at home to Switzerland.

"Russia was terrible, but as far as the players were concerned it was one bad result. I suppose we had realised by then that it was only a matter of when the Roy thing would be brought back up again, but I think we were all still a bit surprised by the media's reaction to the defeat.

"The Switzerland game was more of a shock but we still felt it was something that, if we pulled together, we could pull back from it, to be fair. Mick, though, decided, that it was in the best interests of everybody if he went and I don't think he gets the credit that he deserves for that.

"He knew that he could have dug his heels in but he was looking at the bigger picture and I don't think there's any doubt that by going he saw himself as opening the door to Roy. If he stayed that was dead because their working relationship had completely died in Saipan, so he went and getting Roy to come back became a possibility again."

On the club front, Cunningham's move to Birmingham ended a 13-year stint playing in London and he still maintains that he was in no hurry to leave Wimbledon.

"I had a couple of offers, but I had a long-term contract and I was very happy there," he says. "But once the manager (Steve Bruce) made it clear he was interested he was very active about getting me, on the phone all the time encouraging me to come."

The negotiations continued through the player's one-week holiday in Spain where, as it happens, he ran into David Connolly and Ian Harte. "The fact that the deal wasn't done meant I couldn't switch off completely and then when the holiday was over there was the move to get on with, so it's been a long year. It's been worth it, though; the World Cup was an unforgettable experience and it's wonderful to be playing back in the Premiership and maybe doing a little better than some people expected."

On the international front, he recognises there is a great deal to be done if the team's hope of qualifying for Portugal are to be salvaged. "But that's still the target and if we can win the games in Georgia and Albania, we could still get ourselves into a position, even where we had to win both of our last games to make it through, I think we'd settle for that happily enough now.

"It'll be difficult, but when you look at the way the likes of Damien Duff and Robbie Keane performed at the World Cup I think we still believe it's possible. All of us knew that a lad like Duff had a great talent, but he's always been a quiet, shy lad and maybe he needed to believe in himself a bit more. Over in Japan and Korea you just saw him come out of himself.

"He's not the only one either. We have a great bunch of young lads coming through now. This should be a very good year for fellas like Colin Healy, John O'Shea and Thomas Butler. Mick wasn't afraid to give them a chance, which is another thing he deserves credit for, but the fact that they are going to be around the Irish set-up for such a long time to come is fantastic, really.

"It was great to come into a team that included players like Paul McGrath, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton. To be still playing as the new generation start coming through will be great as well over the next year and, hopefully, beyond."