Monday 29 December 2014

'I hope they don't sweep it under the carpet. The GAA always want to set themselves apart, well now they have that chance'

Published 04/12/2012 | 05:00

Joey Cunningham

Joey Cunningham tells the story of the time he faced down "the banana boys".

It was sometime in the late 1980s during his time as a soccer player with Portadown in the hard environment of the Irish League.

Linfield came to Shamrock Park, Portadown's home, and some of their supporters were on Cunningham's case straight away because of the colour of his skin.

At one stage during the game a banana landed out on the pitch beside him. Cunningham casually stooped and picked up the piece of fruit, peeled it and took a couple of bites out of it before returning the remainder of it back in the direction it had come from.

It incensed the travelling support even more but it was Cunningham's way of letting them know that he didn't care about the abuse.

Sticks and stones might break his bones but names could never hurt him.

The names hurt in the Athletic Grounds on Sunday evening, though. They hurt because Joey Cunningham always felt he took enough abuse for his kids or anyone else belonging to him coming behind him.

Cunningham was a ground-breaker in many respects in the 1980s.

Before there was a Sean Og O hAilpin, there was the little dapper forward in an orange shirt mixed in among a team of giants and strong men as Armagh came close to making a breakthrough in the mid-1980s.

Boundaries

He thinks he was the first GAA player of mixed race to play an inter-county game at Croke Park and it's hard to dispute that claim. He broke boundaries and pushed through doors during a brief spell with Armagh in the 1980s before turning his attention to Irish League soccer.

Cunningham admits he is "proud" of his son Aaron for speaking out about the taunts he claims were directed at him during Sunday's Ulster club football final that brought Crossmaglen Rangers a 10th Ulster title.

He is proud but he is also angry, angrier than at any other time of his life.

"I can honestly say with my hand on my heart I have never felt more emotionally annoyed about something," he said yesterday. "Nothing that was ever said to me was near as bad, probably because he is my son, and you will defend your son at all costs.

"I couldn't speak after the game. People tried to talk to me but I just needed to just digest everything."

He wonders about the motivation for the alleged attack because Aaron, he says, is "not dark skinned" and many people have failed to make the connection between father and son in the past.

Part of Cunningham's anger and disbelief is that this is the GAA at the highest level and he has always looked at Gaelic games as "culturally different" from any other sport.

It's why he now hopes the investigation which starts officially tonight is thorough and produces a meaningful result.

His son has alleged racial abuse from two Kilcoo opponents on the field of play and Cunningham senior revealed the moment he saw Aaron's reaction to the exchange he knew it had to be racially tinted.

"He didn't retaliate although he was angry. I've never saw him as angry. I knew sitting in the stand that something was said to him and I actually said it to some of the people around me.

"I've watched him for a long time playing football and I knew something had been said. His reaction pleased me so much when I think back on it. 'Dad, don't worry about it, I'll sort it,' he said to me.

"I wanted to know what was said, who said it. He wouldn't tell me. He said, 'dad just leave this and let me sort it'.

"Never ever had anything been said like this before. That's the shocking thing about it. He was so shocked by it but he's a strong lad, he won't be traumatised by it in any way, shape or form.

"The strange thing is he actually meets some of these guys (Kilcoo players) on nights out. It's incredible."

Cunningham says he has been told by Kilcoo supporters that racist abuse was also directed at his son from the terraces.

"The racist abuse he was getting from supporters came from directly behind the linesman where the same incident took place.

"There were Kilcoo people coming up to me after the match and were apologising. I don't know these people. These people know me from football. They were actually embarrassed. They said they were sorry to hear this going on and all the rest. That says it all.

"In fact, there is one man who works with my wife and he could hardly speak. He is Kilcoo to the bone. I personally know one of the Kilcoo officers and count him as a friend."

In his own experiences he is adamant he never once heard a racially charged syllable on the field of play during his time with Armagh.

"In Gaelic football, I didn't get any race abuse on the field. I got it from two different sets of supporters but from players, I honestly didn't get it.

"I got beat around the place but that was par for the course. I never ever got it out of the mouth of a player in Gaelic football.

"From the terraces I took any amount of it. It was acceptable back in the 1980s. It made me the person that I am. I said to myself I have taken enough of this for my children or for anyone else who comes along behind me because I was nearly one of a kind at that particular time."

The Irish League was a cauldron most weekends.

"It was severe as regards supporters. It was the whole soccer culture thing with the chants and this sort of carry on.

"It just seemed an acceptable thing to do because that was the culture of that game but the GAA is not like that.

"You can wilt or you can stand up and I can honestly say that I was the first of my kind and I certainly wasn't going to wilt. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't going to get involved in any fist fights or that type of thing. But there are ways of dealing with things and you have to do it the right way. The way I tried to deal with it was to do the business on the field."

He has heard of racial abuse being directed at players in other counties at underage level and and even in Armagh he is able to cite the experiences of his nephew who plays with Forkhill.

"He has been getting it for years in Armagh. It has been brought up so many times before this meeting and that meeting and the whole problem is they couldn't prove it. He is where I was (in the 1980s) and his parents are going mad. And I say to them, 'I'm sorry but he's just going to have to take this on the chin until these things sort themselves out.'"

Aaron Cunningham, he believes, has given the Association that opportunity after highlighting an allegation so quickly in such a high-profile game.

"The GAA is a great organisation. I just hope they don't sweep it under the carpet because by doing something now, they're going to do something more than any other organisation has ever done.

"This is a small country and it's all parish based and community based. Let's not be like everyone else. I don't want anyone hung, drawn and quartered but I want people to realise that this is not acceptable, that we (GAA people) are people of a different culture.

"It's important for the integrity of the GAA. They always want to set themselves apart, well now they have that chance."

Irish Independent

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