Cunningham was a class act

If Dónal Óg Cusack will always be associated with trade unionism as much as those short puck-outs and other acceptable forms of audacity, new Ballygunner manager Ger Cunningham always let his hurling do the talking.

Ger Cunningham in action against Galway in the 1986 All-Ireland final, which Cork came back from seven points down to win. He was unable to keep out this late rocket of a ‘21’ from his opposite number John Commins, quickly retrieving the ball and lashing it downfield as the goalscorer sprinted back for all he was worth. Ger had done precisely the same for The Bars in a Cork championship match – only their opponents Midleton managed to fire the sliotar over his head to John Fenton who blasted home before Cunningham could get back into position… shades of Paddy Cullen!

Ger Cunningham in action against Galway in the 1986 All-Ireland final, which Cork came back from seven points down to win. He was unable to keep out this late rocket of a ‘21’ from his opposite number John Commins, quickly retrieving the ball and lashing it downfield as the goalscorer sprinted back for all he was worth. Ger had done precisely the same for The Bars in a Cork championship match – only their opponents Midleton managed to fire the sliotar over his head to John Fenton who blasted home before Cunningham could get back into position… shades of Paddy Cullen!

Ratified at Sunday’s club AGM, the Bord Gais sales rep’ will be hoping to infuse the Gunners’ young side with the experience gained over an unbroken 18-year inter-county career spanning a record 50 consecutive championship appearances and 111 National League games (ending in 1998); enough to earn him the No1 spot on Cork’s Hurling Team of the Century.

As well as winning three All-Irelands and as many National Leagues, he was also awarded four All Stars, was named Texaco Hurler of the Year in 1986, and achieved an unprecedented seven All-Ireland Puc Fada titles starting in ‘84, the season he collected his first Celtic cross.

A selector and goalkeeping coach with Cork under Donal O’Grady and then John Allen from 2003 to ‘06 and more recently involved with UCC, Cunningham, 47, who’ll have Mick Gaffney and Tom Fives as his selectors, is not the first non-Ballygunner man to take charge at James McGinn Park. Kilkenny’s Gordon Ryan had a successful stint there (though he previously wore the Red & Black jersey as a player), and Newtown/Ballydurn’s Peter Queally also helped them to a couple of county finals before joining up with Davy Fitzgerald last June.

The former St Finbarrs and Cork ‘keeper’s massive clearances down on top of opposing half/full-back lines were a potent weapon for a side with the likes of Ray Cummins and Kevin Hennessy to aim at, and poachers of the class of Jimmy Barry Murphy, Tomás Mulcahy and Seanie O’Leary snapping up breaking balls.

There was much more to Cork than ‘route one’, but the option of ‘going long’ may tempt the Waterford management to give Ballyduff Upper and WIT long puck star Adrian Power his chance, though a shot-stopper/cleaner-upper of Clinton Hennessy’s class and dependability won’t be easily displaced.

Of course their inter-county history will add an extra spice to matters should Ger and new Mount Sion manager Jim Greene find themselves patrolling the same sideline in the months ahead; Jim having been a member of the Waterford teams trounced by Cork in the ‘82 and ‘83 Munster finals (the former earning Cunningham a first of seven provincial winner’s medals).

Jim was retired when, playing against Waterford in the 1989 Munster semi-final replay, Ger, who wasn’t just heavy-handed but also agile and brave, received a right knock to the head and spent the remainder of the game in a daze, conceding three goals. Seriously concussed, he woke up in Cashel hospital with a sore skull and considered quitting the game altogether.

Though Cork seemed to be at a low ebb, he soldiered on and in the following year’s All-Ireland final he was in the wars again, this time with a happier outcome. Having beaten favourites Tipp (after ‘Babs’ Keating’s infamous ‘donkeys don’t win derbies’ jibe) to win Munster, in the McCarthy Cup decider against Galway he blocked a point-blank Martin Naughton shot with the bridge of his nose midway through the second half. The umpires gave no 65, even though Ger clearly deflected the ball wide. Shortly afterwards Tomás Mulcahy goaled, and Cork went on to clinch the first leg of a memorable double.

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