Allianz Football League Division Four Playoff
Waterford v Antrim (Dungarvan, Sunday, 12.15pm, live on GAA GO)
HE has kicked points for Antrim in Clones, Casement Park and, most recently, in Corrigan Park, but Paddy Cunningham admits he is disappointed he’ll not get the chance to play in Croke Park one last time for the Saffrons.
Sunday’s Division Four semi-final against Waterford in Dungarvan may be Cunningham’s penultimate appearance for the Antrim seniors.
The Division Four final won’t be played this season with Sunday’s winners promoted to Division Three along with either Carlow or Louth, who meet at Dr Cullen Park on Saturday.
Indeed, due to close proximity to the various provincial Championships, there is a chance that none of the four League finals will be played this season and there definitely won’t be a final in either Division Two or Four.
Sunday’s game in Fraher Field will be Antrim’s last game before their Ulster Championship meeting with Armagh on Sunday, July 4.
As they’ve only had one home game, Waterford have been given home advantage for this weekend’s promotion play-off.
While Cunningham says the away trip doesn’t bother Antrim, he had hoped the League finals could have been pencilled in before the Championship gets underway later this month.
“That’s probably the most disappointing thing for the four teams in the semi-final – there won’t be a Division Four final,” said Cunningham.
“The League finals are held in Croke Park and that’s always a special occasion for any squad, for everyone involved as well as their families and the fans.
“At the end of the day, promotion is big aim and it has been since the start of the year.
“It is disappointing that the semi-final winners won’t get to play a final in Croke Park, but promotion would have been the main goal for most teams.”
He added: “In an ideal world, Sunday’s game would have been in a neutral venue, maybe at a halfway point.
“After what happened last year in terms of them (Waterford) refusing to travel up North, we accommodated them by agreeing to play the game in Haggardstown.
“I suppose they are just taking advantage of the rules and the fact that they’ve only had home venue. For us, it is dealt with and we’ve known for over a week that we have to go to Dungarvan.
“It is massive game. Waterford will be buzzing because they are at home and will be used to the pitch. It is a tough place to go and it is a massive challenge for us.
“It we were told at the start of the year we’d be in this position, we’d have been delighted regardless of who we are playing or where it is at.”
Antrim have enjoyed an ideal start to life under new manager Enda McGinley thus far in 2021.
A hat-trick of wins against Louth, Sligo and Leitrim doesn’t quite tell the full tale of Antrim’s season to date.
Each win was by the narrowest of margins with all three match-winning points coming deep into injury-time.
The winner against Sligo in Corrigan Park came from the trusty left boot of Cunningham with Ryan Murray and Tomás McCann scoring the vital points against Louth and Leitrim respectively.
Antrim’s refusal to settle for draws and their willingness to back themselves in the dying moments of games stems from working with one of the game’s all-time great forwards in Stephen O’Neill.
The 2005 Footballer of the Year was drafted into McGinley’s backroom team along with St Gall’s and Antrim stalwart Sean Kelly.
Cunningham concedes it took him time to accept his new role as an impact sub, but hopes the Saffrons won’t need a stoppage-time point to salvage a result in Dungarvan this Sunday.
“I think we are making things difficult for ourselves. We know we’ve an awful lot of work to do in terms of our decision-making and our ball skills and also defensively,” said Cunningham.
“We are riding our luck at times. In days gone by, some Antrim teams would have folded at different times during those games so we have to take confidence from that as well.
“It is one thing I’ve seen this year, these young lads have a never-say-die attitude. They keep plugging away to the final whistle. If it goes to the down to the last kick again on Sunday, we have to be prepared for that eventuality.
“I’m playing a different role this year than what I’m used to. I’ve started pretty much every year since I’ve played county.
“The lads came in at the start of the year and asked me to play a different role. It was probably a challenge physiologically to go from being a starter to being a sub.
“At the end of the day, we are all there to help the team and do whatever we can with the game-time you get.
“Stephen O’Neill has come in as forwards coach and I’ve huge admiration for him and I was lucky enough to play against him.
“He has it honed into us that our influence on the game in the last 10 or 15 minutes can be huge. There is great competition in the squad to make the first 15 and to make the 26-man squad for each game.
“Enda (McGinley) and Stephen would always encourage the boys to take the shot, provided you are shooting from the right area and we aren’t as reliant on one or two boys to take the scores – loads of different players are stepping up to the mark.”
The Lámh Dhearg clubman celebrated his 36th birthday last week and is adamant this season will be his last.
He has experienced many highs with the Saffrons including reaching the Ulster Final in 2009 and gaining promotion to Division Two a year later.
Cunningham was coaxed back to the county fold by Lenny Harbinson last season after opting out back in 2014 as Antrim tried to gain promotion from Division Four following near-misses in 2018 and 2019.
Following the Covid-19-inforced break in the League, Antrim suffered a crippling 25-point defeat to Wicklow in Aughrim – a loss which would ultimately cost them their chance of promotion.
Now, Antrim are on the brink of a return to Division Three for the first time since 2017 and Cunningham says he could retire a happy man if he departs the inter-county stage with the Saffrons playing in Division Three next season.
“It would be ideal and I’d be over the moon to leave Antrim after helping in some way to help them promoted to Division Three,” said Cunningham.
“Apart from myself and Mick (McCann), this is still a relatively young squad and I don’t think there is a huge gulf in class between Division Three and Division Four.
“If they could get there and stay up for a year or two, it would also help them develop physically.
“You’ve the likes of Conor Stewart who had been amazing since he has come in and there are other young lads on the fringes of the 26 and maybe others who just missed out this year.
“They’ll drive the thing forward and there is a great buzz about the county.
“If I can help get Antrim to Division Three, I can retire a happy man and I’d look forward to watching them next year as a spectator. I was 36 last week – I’ve had a good innings so this year will definitely do me.”