Shock City debut leaves Galway ace Cunningham reaching for the stars
FEW visitors to Scunthorpe depart feeling like they've lived a dream but, when the Manchester City team bus pulled out of the North Lincolnshire town on Sunday evening, Greg Cunningham was in that category.
It was 11.0 at night when the Galway lad eventually got the chance to speak to his parents back in Carnmore to reflect on a momentous afternoon at Glanford Park in front of the live television cameras.
If his father, Billy, had any idea that the 18-year-old was set to be awarded a first-team debut by Roberto Mancini, as a half-time substitute, in the FA Cup win over the locals, he would have been there. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that the Cunningham family were as taken aback as everybody else by the sudden elevation.
"I'd been over during the week, watching the derby game with Manchester United," said a proud Billy last night. "And then Greg played 90 minutes for the reserves against Liverpool on Thursday night. When we saw that he'd been involved in the full match on that occasion, then we didn't think that he would play at the weekend. That's what he thought as well."
So, his son felt it was business as usual on Friday when he came in for a warm-down and joined in some team-shape exercises. Travelling to a first-team game was nothing new for Cunningham, whose twin brother Daniel is also a promising player, a former Irish U-15 international who is currently on the books of Mervue United, the club where Greg spent his teenage years after lining out for Cregmore FC in his early youth in Claregalway.
Mark Hughes brought him to London for the league defeat to Spurs in December, although Cunningham, who had shone under Glyn Hodges in the reserves, failed to make the bench.
When he made the journey to Scunthorpe, he expected to adopt a similar watching brief, with Mancini dropping no hints. It was only on the day of the game that the Irish U-19 international learned he would be on the substitutes' bench.
And then, at half-time, he was informed that he would be replacing Nigel de Jong and entering the fray after the resumption. There was little time to think about it and, save for an early booking borne from enthusiasm, he went on to play his part, getting on the ball wherever possible, in a 4-2 victory.
For those who have charted his development from an early age, Cunningham's progression into the frame at the top level came as no surprise. Yet his deployment at left-back is the talking point. He set off for England as a renowned attacker who had shone for Mervue in the goalscoring department, in addition to with Galway and District League representative sides and for his country.
Indeed, in his first year with Manchester City, he travelled to the European U-17 Championships in Turkey as left-sided striker. Since then, a gradual transformation has taken place.
"I regarded him as a very capable, attacking left-sided player," recalled Vincent Butler, who capped him for Ireland at U-15 and U-16 levels. "But obviously he's developed into a full- back now. Sometimes it can be easy for players to make that transition, if they're confident on the ball and are comfortable with the game ahead of them.
"He had a good attitude, and I always thought he had a good chance of making it, although I didn't realise he was that close to the first team."
The FAI's National Emerging Talent Co-ordinator Niall Harrison, who was previously concentrated on the Connacht region, remembers spotting the promise of the Cunningham twins from an early age.
"He was such a great goalscorer," Harrison said. "A really good centre-forward or wide-left player. I would never have seen him as a left-back, but he's a great kid from a great family and obviously very adaptable."
It's been a while since a Galway player made significant strides across the water and Cunningham became the first player to advance from Mervue United to a club in the UK. Youth Development Officer Justin Neary took great pleasure from Sunday's viewing, chuckling as he recalled the youngster's goalscoring feats rather than defensive prowess.
"He would actually have trained with us for a while between the ages of six and nine before eventually coming to us from Cregmore. I remember we won the Goodson Cup (an U-14 competition) in 2006, and Greg scored in every round. We beat Crumlin United in the final on penalties after he equalised, and that was a Crumlin team full of internationals," he said.
"We always knew he was destined for greater things and it was exciting for the club on Sunday when the news went around -- for the guys like Jarlath Connolly, Jimmy Howley and Dave Mullally, who managed him. Dave and Bart Barrett looked after the Galway & District League sides that he would have played for until he was 15."
There was no resting on laurels when the move to Manchester City was finalised. The family were too grounded to throw all the eggs in one basket and assume that great riches would follow.
Aware of the fickle nature of the business, they insisted that education remained a part of his day-to-day work. His new employers won the race for his signature because they were willing to accommodate the request -- in fact, it was written into the contract.
"Greg had done well in his Junior Cert and we wanted him to keep going," said his father. "Manchester City were able to provide him with one-to-one tuition while he stayed registered with his school, Calasanctius College in Oranmore, so he kept up with classes at Loreto College in Manchester around his training and came home last June to sit his Leaving Cert, which went well."
"We didn't want him going over there and just lying around or being bored when he wasn't training and, in fairness, it wasn't just a case of us telling him to do it. He wanted to do it as well. He's a bright lad."
Now, he's at the border of a bright new world. During his time at Manchester City, the Arab cash injection has moved the goalposts dramatically in terms of their ambitions, yet Cunningham has managed to hang on in there and recently agreed a two-and-a-half year contract extension.
The first-team dressing room that he regularly visits contains an array of well-known, idiosyncratic characters, but the new boy has found it a welcoming place.
"He can't speak highly enough of them all," said Billy. "They've all been really welcoming to him, Shay Given and Stephen Ireland in particular.
"I know that Stephen Ireland has gotten some bad publicity but he's been really encouraging to Greg both on and off the pitch, particularly on Sunday.
"Maybe it helps that he's not from Dublin," he added, with a laugh. "We're just glad that he's settled in there. He's living the dream."
Bigger stages than Scunthorpe lie on the horizon.