Wednesday 28 June 2017

Anthony Cunningham

IF Anthony Cunningham could be granted a wish right now, it would be for the length of a day to extend beyond 24 hours, and a week to expand to eight days.

Preparing a club for the AIB All-Ireland senior club football semi-final would, in normal circumstances, be enough to fully occupy any manager's thoughts, but Cunningham will have to break off this weekend from preparing Garrycastle (Westmeath) for next Saturday's clash with St Bridget's (Roscommon) to take up the small matter of jousting with Brian Cody and Kilkenny.

Cody takes the All-Ireland hurling champions to Pearse Stadium tomorrow for what will be their first meaningful test (the top squad haven't played in the Walsh Cup so far) of the year against a Galway team that is still in the formative stages under Cunningham and his co-selectors Mattie Kenny and Tom Helebert.

If Garrycastle beat St Brigid's, Cunningham's double-jobbing could last until St Patrick's Day, after which his undivided attention will focus on an attempt to solve a puzzle that defeated John McIntyre, Ger Loughnane, Conor Hayes, Noel Lane, Mattie Murphy and Jarlath Cloonan, all of whom managed Galway over the past 20 years.

Even Cyril Farrell found it beyond him in 1997-98, and since he had previously figured it out twice with largely different squads in 1980 and 1987-88, it underlines just how complex the Galway conundrum really is.

As with Alan Mulholland in football, Cunningham was the obvious choice for promotion to the senior hurling job, having presided over an All-Ireland U-21 triumph last year.

Of course, being the apparent contender brings no guarantees and certainly not in Galway, a county where well-placed optimism has the unhappy knack of melting into nothing.

Still, every season starts out full of hope, a commodity which is again in plentiful supply in Galway.

"You've got to believe it can happen. Ultimately, games are won on the pitch but the sideline has to be right too and Galway have made a good choice in Cunningham," said Farrell.

He has known Cunningham since 1983, the year when Farrell presided over Galway's first All-Ireland minor success. He appointed the St Thomas' youngster as team captain and repeated it at U-21 level in 1986. It worked again as Cunningham led Galway to the All-Ireland title.

By the end of 1988, Cunningham had added two All-Ireland senior medals to his impressive haul. Players who have won All-Ireland minor, U-21 and senior medals are a rare breed, certainly outside Kilkenny and Cork, while it's rarer still for them to later win senior All-Irelands as managers.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Brian Cody did it, and now Cunningham is setting out in pursuit of the big ambition. Additionally, he's also chasing All-Ireland club football glory with Garrycastle.

Cunningham made an early statement when he omitted several of last year's squad in favour of the top end from the U-21 team.

"He had to do it. There was no point in sticking with a squad which had failed so often. Changes had to be made," Farrell added.

"You've got to give new lads their chance. Cunningham is also in charge of the U-21s which is a good idea as it means that the senior and U-21s are working to the same system."

While Cunningham had a hugely successful career across all grades with Galway, he found himself taken off on four occasions in All-Ireland finals, with Farrell the man holding up his number.

It's all part of the wide experience that Cunningham will bring to the job at a time when desperation levels in the county are nearly as high as they were before the All-Ireland breakthrough in 1980.

building

As with Galway footballers, the talk is of stabilisation and building for the future, but Farrell believes that the first year in a managerial stint is often the most important of all.

"It's not necessarily about winning an All-Ireland but about showing progress and ending the year knowing that you're well ahead of where you started it," he said. "Cunningham is smart. He's a good organiser and delegator, but he'll be his own man too and won't be afraid to make the big decisions."

Ultimately, of course, Cunningham will be judged solely on whether Galway win the All-Ireland title, a prize which they've never come close to landing since Cork beat them in the 2005 final.

It has left the broader hurling world seriously sceptical about Galway's real pedigree at the highest level but, according to Farrell, that puts Cunningham in a very good position.

"Galway have had several excellent minor and U-21 teams, while the clubs have a great record in the All-Ireland championship, so the county is producing the talent. You'd have to feel that things have to come right for the senior county team some time," he said.

"Maybe what they need is a lucky general and maybe that's what they'll get with Cunningham. He has the other attributes to be a very good manager, but no one ever succeeded without a bit of luck."

Irish Independent

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