The man, the tracksuit, the legend
By Adrian Russell
Cunningham has just completed a Sport and Recreation college course.
The title seems to sum up his life.
When Irish fans pack their bags for Poland in the coming days and weeks, well-worn green jerseys and scarves will take up a good chunk of the airline weight allowance.
Conor Cunningham, however, will make sure to have his Estonian FA tracksuit safely folded away in his hold-all as he embarks at Cork airport for a flight to Poznan and another adventure.
You’ll remember the Leesider perhaps as the young soccer supporter who skipped past a few stadium stewards, through a quiet doorway and into Irish football folklore during the 4-0 Euro play-off rout of the hosts in Tallinn.
Part of a group from Ballincollig who headed off for the crucial game, he couldn’t secure a ticket outside the A Le Coq Arena and instead found a planked bag of football gear and made his way past security like Peter Sellers in a costume comedy.
When he ended up sitting on the home side’s bench with a bag of footballs at his feet as camouflage, his phone started to vibrate in his pocket under the weight of messages from friends watching at home. It didn’t stop for a week.
For the second half, having drawn some suspicion at last, Cunningham sat in the good seats watching as Ireland more or less guaranteed their participation in this summer’s action, pumping his fist furtively as Robbie Keane scored their fourth.
A strange sight for those sitting around the apparent Estonian staff member. And then the whistle went? He returned to the pitch to celebrate with his heroes.
Though he tucked himself in beside a few of the players for their champagne-scented post-game interviews, it wasn’t to be his last appearance on TV. Seven days later he was sitting in the Late Late Show studio explaining to Ryan Tubridy why he was there.
You didn’t think he was going to watch the finals in Treacy’s, did you?
“I’m booked up, I am yeah,” Cunningham says this week. “Well... I only have flights booked being honest. That’s all I have sorted. I’m thinking I’m just going to have to wing this again as soon as I get there.
“I’m flying Friday the eighth — Cork to Poznan, direct. First game then is on the 10th, the Sunday as you know. And I’m hoping then I’ll get a spin or something; I know a few lads going campervanning so I’m hoping I’ll get a spin off one of them maybe up to Gdansk for the second game.
“And I’m actually going to fly home then out of Gdansk then. So I can only manage to get a week off work so the second game is a Thursday the 14th and I’m gone the 15th. Just the first two games – how bad?” he asks. Not bad at all.
“There’s just the two of us heading out this time; myself and a buddy. There was a good crowd of us for the playoffs but there’s only the two of us this time around. I’d say I’ll pick up a ticket. I’m getting the same line off everyone – make sure you bring the Estonia jacket. You’ll pick something up no problem.
“So hopefully (with) a bit of recognition from that, there might be a ticket flying around.”
Cunningham has just completed a Sport and Recreation college course. The title on his degree seems to sum up his life. Since his high-profile break in the picturesque city of Tallinn, he can’t go anywhere without someone asking him to re-tell the tale.
“They still bring it up. Jesus yeah. Every time I’m out, even in Cork or whatever, there’s someone brings it up. Here’s Mr Estonia! It still gets brought up and it will for a long time to come I’d say.
“It really took off. I couldn’t believe it at the time. I was literally on the phone like this to one newspaper and then another would ring straight after, you know. It was non-stop with interviews.”
So like many he’ll climb off the flight and see what unfolds at his feet in Poland. And whatever happens there’ll be a few more stories to pack into his bag on the way home.
“It’s just a case of winging it. I’m just going to try and do it as cheap as I can like everyone else; no tickets, no accommodation — I’m just going to bring a bag and bring the Estonia tracksuit. It should be good.”
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