'You can overstep the line in getting that edge. Kilcoo overstepped that last year'
Cunningham has no regrets over racial abuse stance, writes Declan Bogue
IN the tunnel after the game, in his black and amber stripes, Aaron Cunningham stood trembling with anger. Crossmaglen had just won their third successive Ulster title against Kilcoo, but something ugly had occurred. Uncharacteristically, Cunningham was raging at linesman Barry Cassidy.
"During the game I got a bit of racial abuse from Kilcoo..."
He ran after the offending player. Asked him: "Why? Why did you say that to me? Why?
"He shrugged it off and said: 'Well, I had to do something, you were playing so good'."
Almost a year on and the same two teams are back in the Ulster club SFC, playing a replay in the Athletic Grounds. Cunningham's shoulder might be up to playing – but it might not be either.
Those who suggested he might have been rested for the game, for whatever reason, have it wrong.
There's nothing he regrets. That night he did not meekly succumb to ignorance. The same thing happened his cousin Jemar Hall a month before. It was enough for him to speak out.
"It was such a high-profile match that if it was brought to people's attention, then something might actually be done about it," he reasons.
"It was much bigger than me. It happened to my dad 20-odd years ago, my cousin experienced it within the past year..."
His dad is Joey Cunningham, who once dashed down the wing playing soccer for Portadown and also dashed down the wing as a forward for Armagh in Gaelic football.
When Aaron's situation blew up, Joey recounted the time when he sent soccer fans into a spin by eating the bananas they threw at him. But that was a lifetime ago.
"Dad had put into me from an early age that I didn't need to accept that, because he took it for long enough. Times had changed and things had moved on," says Aaron. "The fact is, the circumstances fell into place and I had a chance to say something."
That week, Aaron went about his business. On the Monday he was celebrating with his clubmates around Belfast. The next day, he went into hospital for a knee operation, a problem that he seems to have inherited from Joey.
On the Friday, he called into the Ulster GAA offices to give his side of the story to the investigation committee and he "left it with the powers-that-be".
The names of the players are irrelevant now, but the Ulster Council suspended two Kilcoo players, one for six months, another for four.
The six-month suspension was reduced to four, the four-month ban overturned. That enraged the Cunningham family.
"We kind of thought that this was a big chance for the GAA to actually do something about it and crack down on it," says Aaron. "When the appeals went through, me and dad would have thought, why reduce the sentence?
"Either they had done it or they hadn't. And if they hadn't, then give them nothing. There was no middle ground.
"At that stage it was never about hanging people out to dry or anything from our point of view. We felt we could leave it with the GAA to deal with it."
The first time either man heard of the reductions was through reporters rather than the Ulster Council. That's another thing that disappointed them.
Last March at Congress in Derry, the GAA modified Rule 1.12 dealing with sectarian or racist offences.
Now, any "conduct by deed, word or gesture... contrary to the principles of inclusion and diversity against a player... shall be deemed to have discredited the Association."
The punishment for such an offence is a 96-week suspension.
Cunningham is a young man recently graduated in marketing. He displays a precocious awareness of the world around him when he puts his story into a reflective context.
"They (the GAA) did miss the boat a wee bit, but then again you just have to look at what is happening in England in the Premier League.
"The efforts that they are making, and they probably have a lot more finance available to them, it's not sorting it either."
Turning back to the GAA, he continues: "On the other hand, there is a rule change now. If something like that happens again, they will have the mechanism to deal with it."
Still, some things have not changed for the good. Before, Joey had a strong friendship with some prominent members of the Kilcoo club. Ever since, there has been a cooling-off in the relationship.
"It has been strained," admits Aaron. "I don't think there has been too much talk between anyone. We haven't really been moving in those circles to chat with them.
"The incident has left a sour taste in people's mouths. I would have a lot of friends from Kilcoo whom I talk to regularly. It's one of those things.
"We as a family and me personally, we can hold our hands up and say we didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do anything wrong.
"That's life, isn't it?"
He knows that his stand will follow him for a while longer. Last Sunday, for example, when there were smart words spilling from the Pairc Esler stands.
"A few times when I was doing the warm-up and stuff they might have shouted down: 'Go running to the paper now.'
"To be honest, that's banter. It's about football now. People saying that to you, they are just getting a wee edge on you.
"But you can overstep the line in getting that edge. It's knowing where that line is and what it is. Kilcoo overstepped that last year."
Tomorrow, Joey will refuse to attend a Cross' match. However, Aaron desperately wants to be out on the field. For his strength of character, he deserves to have been better treated.
And although it might take a while for the sting to subside, Aaron leaves a legacy for the Association. It shouldn't have required him to speak out, but he had broad enough shoulders for it.
As he says himself – that's life.