This year was meant to be Paddy Cunningham’s very own last dance with Antrim, but it appears his health issues might preclude him from playing any further part in their season.
he 35-year-old accepted an invitation from Saffrons manager Lenny Harbinson to rejoin the panel after a hiatus of several seasons, prompted by a series of sparkling displays for his club Lamh Dhearg as they reached the county final in 2019.
Antrim’s season was also going well as they were in position for a Division Four final, while they were due to play the winners of the Ulster Championship preliminary round tie between Monaghan and Cavan.
However, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, along with Cunningham’s Crohn’s disease, leaves things very much in doubt after a weekend discussion with his consultant, Dr Mitchell.
“He basically advised me to be doing nothing still for another five to six weeks to see where the ‘R’ rate is at then,” stated Cunningham.
Club teams are due to resume collective training on June 29 in groups of 10, with two coaches present per group while observing the two-metre social distancing rules. Full contact training will then be permitted from July 20, but right now Cunningham cannot entertain the thought.
“(Dr Mitchell) just said to me that he is not overly worried about me because he knows I would be ultra-careful and ultra-safe, but he is just worried – if I was to go back – about other people not being responsible, such as if they had any symptoms whether they would acknowledge they had anything wrong or even recognise it,” he said.
“He was also curious about the level of testing, how much testing is going to be in place even at county level.
“Up until now, I haven’t heard anything. It is an amateur sport played in an elite and professional way, but we haven’t been told about anything yet.
“But that’s the difference in ourselves as GAA players and professional soccer players and rugby players at provincial level.
“He said himself that things were moving in the right direction across the board, but at this stage it would be silly to risk anything.
“Until I hear back from him, I have to stick to my own stuff, no collective training or anything.”
Having lived with the condition for a decade now, the St Mary’s CBGS teacher has quarterly appointments with his consultant.
Given the medication he is on, he also has to get a transfusion every eight weeks. His bloods can have a direct influence on his sporting performance.
He explained: “The best way to describe it is that your batteries would be flying the first four or five weeks and then coming to the end of the cycle before you are due, you would feel a bit lethargic, energy levels would be low and you find day to day tasks more difficult. The training load feeds into that, you always have your fingers crossed and always hope that the transfusions fall the week before a big game.”
On January 6, Cunningham was name-checked in an article detailing those who had decided to come back to inter-county action, bucking the trend of those opting out. He tweeted the piece with a simple message: “One more go”.
Nobody could have foreseen the rich irony of that then, but it still stings that it could all be over for him.
“Coming back for one last big blast at the county, given the work that was put in to chase that and get up to that level again, it’s been disappointing. But I have kept myself in decent shape over the pandemic,” he said.
“The scary prospect is that I might not be able to play at all, which will be heartbreaking to be totally honest with you. I know hand on heart that if I am not able to play at all this year, with the club first and the county after, that will be a very tough one to take.”
As a father of three and a teacher, he admits to multiple frustrations during the past three months. It’s the same for everybody, but it is magnified with the GAA gearing up for a return to action.
“I think there are so many grey areas and contradictions across the whole pandemic as a whole from the government,” he said.
“It has been contradictory throughout the whole process.
“I have a son myself and me or my wife Claire could be dropping him to training, and he could mix with 20 or 30 kids with social distancing – but he cannot go to his school or socialise with his friends.
“There are so many contradictory issues across the board. I can understand society’s frustrations with that.
“Personally, I would love to see my son back at training, he keeps asking when he is going to be able to go back, when he is going to be able to see his friends, and my daughter asks the same questions about getting back to her nursery and when the bug is going to be away.
“It is a difficult situation. A lot of it has to be based on science. People cannot get slack and lazy. They cannot take things for granted again. We have to make sure complacency does not set in individually and collectively in society.”