Cunningham Player of the Year
KENNY CUNNINGHAM'S progress as an influential member of Mick McCarthy's new-look Irish team was recognised last night with his selection as the 1998 FAI/Opel International Player of the Year.
The 27-year-old Wimbledon defender edged out Denis Irwin (Manchester United) and Shay Given (Newcastle United) to capture the most coveted individual award in Irish soccer.
Cunningham, capped for Ireland at Youth, U-21 and B level, won his first senior cap against the Czech Republic in April '96 and has been a mainstay of the team since.
A versatile player, Cunningham has established himself as a first choice centre-back although he plays right-back for his club.
He has now made 17 senior appearances and had the honour of being captain on his return to the Czech republic for a friendly last March.
A product of the Dublin Schoolboys' League, Cunningham played for Home Farm and Tolka Rovers before cutting his teeth in the English League with Millwall.
He joined Wimbledon in November, '94 and his consistent performances have helped the Dons' maintain their Premiership profile.
Cunningham follows Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath (twice), John Aldridge, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Alan McLoughlin and Roy Keane as members of Ireland's exclusive international club.
The precocious striking talents of Robbie Keane were appreciated in his selection as Young Player of the Year. Only 18, Keane is destined for a bright international future for Ireland after bursting on to the scene with Wolves in the past 12 months.
Since scoring twice on his club debut, Keane has become one of the hottest prospects in the English club game with a posse of Premiership clubs chasing the signature of the talented Tallaght teenager, who has won four senior caps.
Kevin Kilbane, the West Brom winger with an eye for goal, clinched the U-21 award, while classy centre-back Colin Hawkins, an integral part of St Patrick's Athletic's Premier Division success last April, won the National League award.
Predictably, the achievements of the Irish under-age teams during the Summer were also recognised last night.
The U-18 and U-16 teams, managed to European Championship success by Brian Kerr, were guests of honour at the function and the respective captains, Barry Quinn and Shaun Byrne, were popular selections as `Player of the Year' in their categories.
And there was a tremendous ovation for Noel O'Reilly, Kerr's No 2, whose contribution to the sport over the past 20 years was recognised with the Special Merit award.
Last season, O'Reilly was coach at St Pat's, the League winners, before assisting Kerr in the under-age triumphs in Scotland and Cyprus.
Like Kerr, O'Reilly was still cock-a-hoop following last Friday's dramatic 1-0 triumph over Russia in this season's European Youths Championship. Of the 23 players who ended up in the squad, eight play for home-based clubs and that represents a massive shot in the arm for the domestic game.
There was a Manchester United theme to the evening as Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne, European Cup winners with the Old Trafford club 30 years ago, were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
And Nobby Stiles, a World Cup winner with England and League and European Cup winner with United, received the International Personality award, following Franz Beckenbauer, Kenny Dalglish, Eusebio, Karl Heinz Rummenigge, Ossie Ardiles and the late Bobby Moore.
AWARD WINNERS Senior: Kenny Cunningham (Wimbledon). Young: Robbie Keane (Wolves). U-21: Kevin Kilbane (West Brom). National League: Colin Hawkins (St Pat's Athletic); Youths: Barry Quinn (Coventry C). U-16: Shaun Byrne (West Ham United). U-15: Clifford Byrne (Sunderland/Home Farm). Junior: Philip Long (St Kevin's Boys). Schools: Kevin Doherty (Liverpool/Home Farm/St Joseph's, Fairview). Ladies: Yvonne Lyons (Benfica). Hall of Fame: Shay Brennan and Tony Dunne. Special Merit: Noel O'Reilly. International Personality: Nobby Stiles.