Sport Soccer

Thursday 15 November 2018

Captain Cunningham

Philip Quinn

Capital day as Dubliner Kenny gets the armband SAM MAGUIRE may not be coming back to the capital but a Dubliner leads the Republic of Ireland again after Kenny Cunningham was confirmed as captain for the European Championship campaign.

It is 13 years ago to the month since he left Tolka Rovers to embark on a professional career with Millwall and Cunningham returned to the club's grounds in Griffith Avenue yesterday to be told by manager Mick McCarthy of his appointment.

A good friend of Dessie Farrell, his former St Vincent's CBS class mate, Cunningham's week began on a grim note at Croke Park on Sunday where he watched the Dubs, and Dessie, crash out to Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

But his mood soared when McCarthy took him to one side yesterday to relay the news before briefing the Irish squad that the 31-year-old Birmingham City defender, a popular and respected figure, would lead the team for the Euro qualifiers, which commence against Russia in Moscow on Saturday.

Cunningham, a native of Coolock, is the first Dubliner to be given the captaincy on a permanent basis since Frank Stapleton, who led Ireland 34 times between 1983 and 1988 and, by coincidence, hails from Artane, the parish adjacent to Coolock.

Since Stapleton captained Ireland to the finals of Euro '88, a number of Dubs have been entrusted with the armband on a temporary basis, such as Kevin Moran, Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath and more recently, Niall Quinn, Mark Kinsella and Cunningham himself.

But the void left by Roy Keane's absence and Steve Staunton's retirement, called for continuity and McCarthy had no hesitation in opting for Cunningham, who has won 41 caps.

"Kenny's a great influence on the squad, on and off the park. He's a great talker and organiser, he conducts himself well, is a first class professional and someone I've always spoken of in glowing terms," said McCarthy, who first met Cunningham at Millwall in 1990.

"He's been captain before when Roy Keane or Steve Staunton weren't available but now it's different as he's no longer standing in for anyone. There were a number of players who I considered, such as Gary Breen, Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella but Kenny is the senior member of the squad and I feel he's the right person for the position," he added.

McCarthy would have given Cunningham the captaincy irrespective of his summer move to Premier League newcomers Birmingham. "It wouldn't have affected me if Kenny was still playing for Wimbledon, he'd still be captain," said McCarthy who flies out with the squad to Moscow today.

Predictably, Cunningham played down his leadership qualities when he faced the media. Asked what type of captain he might be to follow the likes of Captain Fantastic, Captain Courageous, and Captain Marvel, he replied with modesty: "Captain Chaos, probably."

"It's a fantastic honour," he went on. "I've been captain before but to be handed the captaincy at this time, makes me feel very humble and a little bit embarrassed as I can't hold a torch, as a player, to the Irish captains before me. You don't change your game because you're captain and considering the squad of players we've got who've won 30 caps or more, there's not many nuggets of information I can give that will make any difference.

"Some of my best experiences as a professional player have been in the international set-up, culminating in the World Cup this summer which has made all the players more determined to do well in the European Championships. We're going to Moscow looking to get out of the blocks as quick as possible. We must be wary of complacency. The challenge facing us is new as we're no longer underdogs, we're top seeds. That creates a different kind of pressure but I believe we're good enough to qualify."

Cunningham is a graduate of the Home Farm academy in Whitehall, where he played from under 9s to 17s before making the short hop to Tolka Rovers. He signed for Millwall on September 18, 1989 and made 136 League appearances for the Lions before a 650,000 transfer to Wimbledon in November '94.

The unlikeliest member of the Crazy Gang, he played 250 League games for the Dons until his free transfer to Birmingham in July. A full-back for most of his club career, he has played at wing-back and, mostly, centre-back for Ireland since his debut against the Czech Republic in March '96.

His Irish career has been punctuated by as many painful lows as highs. He played every minute of the play-off defeats against Belgium and Turkey, but was on the bench for the win over Iran and featured as a substitute, twice, in the World Cup finals last summer.

So far, he has captained Ireland four times, the friendly games against the Czech Republic (March '98), Sweden (April '99) and Northern Ireland (May '99), in addition to the Euro Championship home win over Macedonia in June '99.

For all his qualities, Cunningham is the last person you'd bet on to score a goal. In 495 senior career games for club and country, he has managed a solitary goal. He's certainly overdue another.

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