There was an audible chuckle from one of the locals down at the back of the hall at the Galway hurling press night recently when a national newspaper reporter prefaced a question to Anthony Cunningham asking him what he thought about something ‘given your football background’.
To many, Cunningham’s elevation to a manager on All-Ireland hurling final day has come as a result of the unprecedented success at county and provincial level with football teams in Roscommon and Westmeath.
But to those from hurling heartland in Co Galway, Cunningham’s success with the footballers of St Brigid’s in Roscommon and more recently with Garrycastle of Westmeath has been greeted with curiosity. Quite simply, there is no ‘football background’ where Cunningham comes from and until he surprisingly emerged with St Brigid’s six years ago as manager, nobody in his home county knew that he had any inkling for the big ball.
There has only ever been one sport around Peterswell in south Co Galway where Cunningham hails from. Peterswell won seven Galway SHC titles from 1889 to 1907 and was one of the bedrocks in which the GAA took roots.
In more recent times players from Peterswell have been playing under the St Thomas banner, a club which was founded in 1968 when they joined forces with the Kilchreest parish. Their pitch is along the main road from Gort to Loughrea.
Football, or any other sport, has never took hold. Success has been thin in terms of silverware but few Galway teams, especially at underage, have taken the field in the last 30 years without some St Thomas’ players being involved.
Cunningham has been the front-runner and has an uncanny knack of encountering success everywhere he turns.
He arrived into a Galway hurling dressing-room for the first time when made the county U16 team with a year to spare. His club mate John Burke, a year older, accompanied him. John’s son David is now a key member of Cunningham’s team and another son, Darragh, is in the subs.
From the outset it was obvious Cunningham was special, a left-handed corner-forward who could dash in along the endline and somehow find the net from the tightest of angles.
The following year, while still just 15, he was drafted into the county minors. He was top scorer with 2-2 when they defeated a Clare team in the semi-final who had just won their first Munster minor title. They lost the final to Kilkenny but over three decades later that side is interwoven with links to Sunday’s side with defender Johnny Coen’s father Tommy in goal, coach Tom Helebert at wing-back, John Burke in midfield and current hurling board chairman Joe Byrne a sub. Five of that defeated team — Pete Finnerty, Helebert, Michael McGrath, Michael Coleman and Eanna Ryan — would go on to win All-Stars.
Cunningham was in good company and clearly a trail-blazer. He played in three All-Ireland minor finals, losing the first two before captaining Galway to their first ever title in the grade when they beat Niall Quinn’s Dublin in the final in 1983, a day when Joe Cooney first took to the big stage.
By the time Cunningham captained Galway to win the U21 crown in 1986 he had already broken through to the county senior side and had come on in the All-Ireland final loss to Offaly the previous year.
He started in Galway’s next four All-Ireland final appearances but was substituted in each of them in 1986, ’87, ’88 and ’90. He picked up All-Ireland medals in ’87 and ’88. A notable feature of his management has been the regularity with which substitutions — often multiple — have been made in the opening half of games when things are not going well.
Inevitably, as the golden period for Galway hurling faded, Cunningham, who had enjoyed success with Our Lady’s College in Gort and UCG (as NUIG was then known) along the way, reverted back to the club game, slipping from senior down to a junior grade where he won a county title in the mid-1990s when he was in a full-forward line with a combined age of over 100 years.
By then his work as an engineer had taken him to Athlone and he set up the family home with his wife May in Kiltoom, a short distance from work on the Roscommon side of the county line.
Inevitably, he became involved in local activities and while there was a brief dally as Roscommon hurling manager, his focus became the progressive St Brigid’s GAA club. Cunningham found himself chairman of the development committee which oversaw a project that made St Brigid’s the envy of clubs throughout the country. A main pitch with floodlights was backed up by training pitches, a massive clubhouse with a bar. But it wasn’t just bricks and mortar and grass, huge investment was put into developing their football teams. John O’Mahony, a few years after his success with Leitrim and a season before leading Galway to the promised land, guided them to the 1997 county title, their first in 28 years.
They lost three after that and after winning in 2005 needed to find a new man to take charge when Ger Dowd stepped down. Anthony Cunningham, a steward in the car park when they defeated Kiltubrid in the Connacht semi-final after the ’05 success, was given the job. After all, not many Roscommon clubs have a man in their ranks who has played in five All-Ireland finals. Even if they were hurling.
The success flowed. The county final was retained, then Karol Mannion scored a scorcher to win the Connacht club title in the last minute against Corofin. It was a hard defeat for a Galway stronghold to take, not least when they saw man from their hurling heartland being carried off by the jubilant Rossies.
He helped St Brigid’s complete the three-in-a-row before stepping down and finding his services being demanded by Dessie Dolan’s Garrycastle in Athlone.
That was in 2009. Up to then Garrycastle had won three county titles. When Cunningham left them this year they had double that and had become the first Westmeath side to win the Leinster club title. Not bad for a lad who knew nothing about football.
But Cunningham’s ability has been able to appoint and delegate. He is quiet and unassuming but can let fly in a dressing-room and usually starts with the strongest player and works his way back. Most of the sides he has managed have had a few egos but he has somehow managed to get the best out of them.
The football success has been enjoyed by Cunningham but one eye was always cast across the border to his native Galway. He was interviewed when John McIntyre got the job. He impressed and when a vacancy came up at U21 level he was summoned.
An All-Ireland title last year, particularly the manner of it, after a drubbing in the final the previous year, saw him the obvious replacement last autumn when Galway needed a new man.
He brought Helebert and Mattie Kenny with him, guys he had hurled with and against down through the years and who forged a dynamic management team at U21.
Cunningham saw — and benefited from — a clear-out Cyril Farrell did when he came back for his second spell in charge of the Tribesmen in the mid 1980s. It brought Galway their most successful period ever.
Cunningham did the same last autumn and is now just 70 minutes from bridging the gap to 1988.