Thursday 22 August 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Cunningham leaves Cody frying pan only to land into Gavin fire'


Challenge: Roscommon football manager Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile
Challenge: Roscommon football manager Anthony Cunningham. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Thirty have tried and 29 have failed. In 43 games, over seven seasons, Jim McGuinness is the only manager to shake Jim Gavin's hand as a winner after a championship game.

Mayo's Pat Holmes/Noel Connelly partnership and Stephen Rochford presided over two draws but the replays were lost. Now, Anthony Cunningham gets to test his case against Gavin as he returns to Croke Park as a manager for the first time since his Galway hurlers lost the 2015 All-Ireland final to Kilkenny.

His duels with Brian Cody were fascinating over four seasons and while Galway lost the 2015 final after leading by five points late in the first half, Cunningham was full of optimism for the future.

"It's within our grasp to win an All-Ireland. We're within inches of it," he said at the post-match press conference.

He didn't realise that while he was looking to future, the squad - or at least an influential wing - were also planning ahead, only without him. He was eventually left with no option but to resign.

If Cunningham had been told on the evening of the 2015 final that his next sideline championship activity in Croke Park would be as a football manager, he would have assumed the world was about to spin on a very strange axis. Indeed, he would have been similarly inclined if that were put to him last year.


He was in the Dublin hurling camp at the time as coach in Pat Gilroy's regime and would have been happy to continue.

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However, Gilroy resigned unexpectedly and while Cunningham was understood to have been in the running to replace him, the job instead went to another Galwayman, Mattie Kenny.

That appeared to leave Cunningham with nowhere to go - in the short term at least - but fate intervened when the proposed appointment of Aidan O'Rourke as Roscommon football manager fell through at the last minute.

Since it was now well into November and past time to have begun preparations for 2019, Roscommon had to move quickly. And so they did, turning to Cunningham, whose pedigree as a football manager included winning provincial club titles with St Brigid's (Roscommon) and Garrycastle (Westmeath).

Nine months later, he finds himself lining up on the same sideline where he jousted with the most successful hurling manager of all time, only this time it's against a man who is focused on taking Dublin footballers into the history books as the first five-in-a-row winners.

It seems very much a case of out of the frying pan and into fire. Perhaps, but Cunningham has already achieved more as a dual manager than anyone else, having steered the Galway hurlers to a Leinster title and Roscommon's footballers to Connacht success.

He enjoyed one victory against Cody (2012 Leinster final), but it really would be one of the biggest shocks in GAA history if he were to experience a similar feeling in Croke Park this evening. However, it will be very interesting to see how he sets up the team for such a massive test. An open style under Kevin McStay left Roscommon hopelessly exposed in last year's Super 8s, where Tyrone and Dublin both hit them for 4-24.

Cunningham's priority from the start of this season was to make them harder to beat, even if it meant compromising on the attacking side of the game.

The new approach was obvious from the day they restricted Galway to 1-5 in the FBD Connacht League final in January and continue into the league where they conceded only two goals in their first three games.

Leaks started to spring from there on, with Cavan, Galway, Dublin and Kerry scoring a total of eight goals.

It left Cunningham with repair work before the start of the championship and he obviously figured out the problems as Roscommon didn't give away a single goal against Leitrim, Mayo, Galway or Tyrone.

It brought three victories in Connacht but wasn't enough against Tyrone, whose 0-17 total yielded a four-point win last Saturday.

Roscommon's defensive game drew praise from Mickey Harte, a man not exactly short of rearguard strategies.

"They are much improved. They were never going to be the open book they were last year," Harte said.

Even as he was speaking in Dr Hyde Park, Dublin were warming up for their clash with Cork in Croke Park - a game in which they scored 5-18.

It was the second time they scored five goals this summer, having also done it against Louth in the Leinster quarter-final. They scored no goals against Kildare and one against Meath, defences which would not be regarded as being as solid as Roscommon's well-structured set-up.

Dublin have repeatedly shown that they are quite happy to win games via the points route, although they will go for the jugular if the chances arise, as they did against Cork last Saturday.

The dilemma facing Cunningham is whether to stick or twist. Does he opt for a more adventurous approach or remain largely conservative, as was the case against Tyrone, and hope it succeeds where similar tactics by others failed so often against Dublin.

Despite that, the latter is the more likely option. It almost certainly won't be enough to win, but it should prevent Dublin from opening the floodgates, as they did last year.

It's unfortunate for Roscommon that they are in the same Super 8s group as Dublin for a second successive year and that they also have to play them in Croke Park.

It underlines yet again the unfairness of a system that gives possibly the best team of all-time two 'home' games while the other seven get one each.

And before anyone points out that Parnell Park is Dublin's home ground, when last did they play a league or championship game there?

Cunningham won't have allowed that to distract his players in any way as he seeks to reinforce a solid culture among a group for whom last year's Super 8s was a chastening experience.

His vast experience as a player and manager at the highest level, backed up by his limitless enthusiasm, have been a perfect fit, but both he and the Roscommon players know they are heading into a real hothouse this evening.

It certainly won't bother Cunningham, who will love the challenge of jousting tactically with Gavin, just as he revelled in the rivalry with Cody.

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