Category: Archive

The professional

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Then in his pomp with Liverpool, Whelan’s very presence made the hair stand up on the back of Cunningham’s neck and his hands sweat. Throughout the prize-giving ceremony, he busied himself trying desperately to avoid making eye contact with his hero. Still, a lasting impression of the occasion was made. A dream was kindled.
Eight years later, Cunningham signed a one-year contract with Millwall. Not exactly a long-term investment by the London outfit, he was hopeful a season in the English game would stand to him in his eventual efforts to forge a career in what was then the League of Ireland. As insurance, he even applied for a few college courses in Dublin so he’d have something else to come back to.
Starting his first Premiership game for Wimbledon at the age of 23, he calmed his nerves by reminding himself if he could manage 40 games in the top flight, he would improve further and be better equipped for life in the lower divisions. With the departure of Roy Keane to Celtic, Cunningham is now the longest-serving Irish footballer in England’s top flight and that much is nothing short of remarkable.
Early in his international career, Cunningham would periodically go into the room where he kept his memorabilia. He’d look at the jerseys lined up, the caps off to one side and remind himself what they signified. Far, far more talented players have represented Ireland. There are very few to whom it meant more.
Cunningham’s story is only important because there is a lesson in it for every youngster dreaming the big dream. In a less spectacular way than Keane, he is an example of an individual maximizing every ounce of his talent and seizing each opportunity. What natural ability he had was supplemented by an incredible thirst for knowledge, an insatiable appetite for work and an overwhelming desire to succeed.
Every time an Irish youngster returns from an English club without making it, there is always a colorful spin. Either the player was discriminated against and victimized by some unscrupulous coach or the individual was too fond of the partying to endure in the tough, unforgiving environs of the professional game.
While there are plenty instances of both those cases, the most common explanation is actually pretty basic. Some of the most talented footballers from Ireland simply don’t want to succeed badly enough. They think they’ve made it the moment they arrive and fail to understand the hardest battle of their sporting lives begins the second they set foot on the plane out of Ireland. Cunningham is the exact opposite of all of those kids who didn’t make the cut. He was, truly, the unlikely lad.
Most scouts surveying the crop of Ireland’s most promising teenagers in the late eighties wouldn’t have listed Cunningham among the best players on the northside of Dublin. But he got a single chance and look what he did with it. Somewhere between now and the end of the season, the centre-half will start his 600th professional game for Birmingham City. An incredible statistic. It will be nearly 200 more than the amount played by fellow 34-year-old Jason McAteer, a man currently earning a living two divisions below with Tranmere Rovers.
“I’ll tell you one of my greatest assets,” said Cunningham once. “I’ve always had the ability to realize what my limitations are. That’s helped me a lot. ‘I’m not going to go round spraying balls 60 yards, I’m not going to crash into tackles like a Braveheart type of figure. I haven’t got those tools in my make-up. It’s nice to stand ‘outside’ yourself as a player and look objectively. I’ve watched myself on tape and I can recognize my weaknesses and act on them.
“If you’re not the quickest, then you position yourself so you aren’t shoulder -to-shoulder with someone who can run the 100 meters in 10.2 seconds. I’m not exactly the tallest, either, so I try not to let a 6’5″ tall center-forward have a running jump because, if I do, he will beat me. I will try to use my body to prevent him jumping, stand on his toes, so to speak. You learn with experience over time. You educate yourself over time to recognize situations as they come to you and deal with them.”
Following his recent curtailing of his international involvement – he’s shortlisted for the FAI Player of the Year that must surely go to Shay Given – there is speculation he’s about to call time on his club career too. With Birmingham deep in the relegation mire all season, the 34 year old has turned down an offer to negotiate a new contract and around St. Andrew’s, word is he’s seriously considering retiring this summer. It would be somehow fitting if a cerebral Irish footballer who never thought he’d play at the highest level departed the sport while still in the Premiership.
“Would Kenny make a good manager?” asked Birmingham manager Steve Bruce earlier this season. “You would have to ask Kenny if he wanted to stay in the game, but he is just starting to do something coaching-wise. But at the moment I’m concentrating on Kenny with his experience and the help that he can give us on the pitch to improve our current position.
“He’s still got a bit left in him because his fitness levels show that he hasn’t gone downhill. He has given no indication over his future. He wants to keep his options open to see how he is physically towards the end of the season, and I expect nothing to change. But, if anyone can go on, it is Kenny because he is in with the staff at 8:30, preparing for training every morning. He is the ultimate professional.”
The ultimate professional and a salutary, if unglamorous, lesson to all.

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