Cunningham hopes under 21s can bounce back
EIGHTEEN months ago, Greg Cunningham was Giovanni Trapattoni's choice of successor at left-back to the veteran Kevin Kilbane. Shortly after, he suffered an horrific leg break and so, instead of sampling the delights of Budapest, tomorrow he continues his rehabilitation in the Sligo Showgrounds (3.0), where he will captain the under 21s in a vital European Championship qualifier against group leaders Italy.
His leg break occurred while on loan to Leicester City and, after a nine-month recovery period, he returned to the scene of the crime, as it were, when he went on loan this season to another Championship side, Nottingham Forest.
As befits someone who completed his Leaving Cert studying at night in Manchester during his first year with Manchester City, Forest proved an important learning experience. "We were in the relegation zone," he explains, "and I had never been in that situation before. We had the squad there that should have been a lot higher, but it became a battle. I learned a lot mentally about how to get a club like that out of the drop zone. After Christmas we got a great run of form going and we finished 10 points off the drop. Before that we just couldn't score a goal."
Even in his approach to his rehab, Cunningham displays the instincts of a student. Instead of looking at the big picture, "I set little goals that would come in a week or two. I had the best of care at Man City. I was lucky to have the top specialists, the top equipment and physios, and the support of everybody at the club and my family."
He never harboured any doubts about his future. "You can't. No matter what club you are at you have to have confidence in your own ability. I have a lot to learn and I'm working on always improving my game.
"When you watch a game live or on TV, you can watch it in general, but I also like to watch the little things that full-backs do in situations that I might be in. I'm always anxious to pick up something that I can add to my own game."
The Galwayman believes his time out of the game has seen him mature as a person. "I've done a lot of strength and power work in the gym, and I am bigger and stronger now to meet the demands of the game."
Tomorrow will be a good test of his progress towards reclaiming his place in the senior Irish squad. Under 21 manager Noel King says of Italy: "They are the benchmark. We will know after this game if we are dreaming or if we have a real chance of going to the finals. They have put a lot of money into their team. They were in France last year and they have been on a number of training camps. They were terrific when I saw them hammer Scotland. If I wasn't working, I'd have enjoyed it."
King believes that "if we get seven points out of the next 12 we would be in a good place for one of the best four runner-up spots. We have won three in a row in Sligo, and if we get something from Italy, then I'd say we might be bringing Turkey to Sligo for a vital game on August 14."
With the Italians having won five out of five, they will be expected to have plenty of the ball. In that context, King is fortunate to have so many players who are comfortable on the ball -- Shane Duffy, Cunningham, Aidan White, Jeff Hendrick, Rhys Murphy, Robert Brady -- so that it won't be hoof-ball when they get possession.
"The Denmark game was good preparation," says Cunningham. "None of us likes losing, but in open play we contained them very well, only conceding through a deflected free-kick and a soft penalty. We will learn from that and look forward with confidence to the Italy game."
Sunday Indo Sport