By Bill George
KENNY CUNNINGHAM was reminded yesterday of the list of his predecessors as captain of Ireland.
With typical modesty, he said: “In all honesty, I feel a little humble and a little embarrassed in some respects when you put my name in that company, because as a player, I cannot really hold a torch to the majority of those you’ve mentioned.”
Cunningham, 32, has been capped 41 times since he made his debut against the Czech Republic in 1996.
He topped off a magnificent summer by being elevated to the position of captain of Ireland for Saturday’s European Championship qualifying tie against Russia in Moscow.
He follows a long and distinguished line of stars: Johnny Giles, manager Mick McCarthy himself, Andy Townsend, Roy Keane and Steve Staunton.
Although Jason McAteer captained the side on his 50th appearance in the friendly against Finland, Cunningham is clearly McCarthy’s choice to lead Ireland at least for the qualifying campaign of the European Championship of 2004 in Portugal.
Cunningham, a Dubliner, is one of football’s most engaging personalities and a competitor of steel and determination. He did not start the World Cup finals as first choice because he was recovering from injury and the good form of Gary Breen and Steve Staunton kept him on the sideline.
But he was typically professional in his support of the squad in Japan and Korea and played brilliantly as a substitute against Germany and Spain.
His modesty is the mark of a genuine personality who enjoys popularity within the squad.
He has captained Ireland four times. His natural leadership qualities are shown off the pitch as well, where he is responsible for selecting Irish music tapes that are played when the squad is travelling by coach.
McCarthy first managed him when Cunningham was a youngster at Millwall.
“He has always had a positive influence on the players, not just on the pitch, but off the field as well,” McCarthy said.
“He is always a calming influence with his quiet and authoritative personality, and he has captained the team successfully before. He now assumes a very important role within the group, but it is one which suits him,” he said.
The current Roy Keane controversy prompted McCarthy to say: “Please, do not anybody attempt to suggest that there is by implication any inference referring to any previous captain here.
“Kenny is a first-class professional, a very, very good player and anybody who has ever worked with him has nothing but praise for him.”
The pride Cunningham took in his elevation was obvious when he complimented the quality of his predecessors, but his natural good humour surfaced quickly when he suggested that he did not have the ability to match Ireland’s previous captains “bar Jason (McAteer), that is”.
He spoke of the pleasure his appointment would give to his mother, his family and friends, and added: “It is a pleasant experience, but ultimately it is about the squad of players and what we achieve in this qualifying campaign, regardless of who is captain at any particular time,” he said.
“It is about our performances collectively as a team, and also individually, so hopefully we’ll be good enough to get out of this group.”
Said goalkeeper Shay Given: “Kenny is a leader, so it is a good choice by Mick. There were a couple of players he could have chosen, Gary Breen is another leader in the team, and obviously Kenny has got the nod and that’s good.
“He’s from Dublin and maybe a Donegal man might get it one day.”
Said Cunningham: “The last qualifying tournament, which culminated in the World Cup this summer, was a fantastic experience for everybody and I think that has made everybody more determined to make sure that when finals come around, European and World Cup finals, that we are part of them.
“That begins again for us this weekend, so I think there is a real determination amongst the players this week. We’re not going to start slowly, we’re going to get out of the blocks as quickly as possible, and hopefully get a positive result in Moscow this Saturday.
“We’ve got a qualifying campaign in front of us and that’s all that is important. The captaincy or the smaller topics surrounding the squad are really not important, we really have to get focused on the game this Saturday and obviously the game against Switzerland next month.”