The Leeside Legends series: Ger Cunningham an unrivalled number one

The Leeside Legends series: Ger Cunningham an unrivalled number one

Ger Cunningham in Thurles in 1998 in a championship meeting with Clare, his last season between the posts for his beloved county. Picture: Des Barry

ONE of the great strengths of Cork hurling over the years has been the excellence of its goalkeepers as a succession of dependable men between the uprights provided the cornerstone for all our All-Ireland winning teams.

Ger Cunningham comes away with the ball during the Centenary All-Ireland Hurling final.
Ger Cunningham comes away with the ball during the Centenary All-Ireland Hurling final.

In truth, Ger Cunningham was one of the best ever to don the red and white jersey of Cork.

Cunningham was born in 1961 and like many other youngsters in this community, began playing in the St Finbarr’s Street Leagues at the Lough and the netminder looked back on those days with a lot of pride.

“The games would always be on Sunday mornings and were witnessed by large crowds who would stop and watch on their way home from Mass.

“If you were lucky enough to get to the final you would change at the Lough Community Centre and a band would play both teams down the hill to the pitch,” said Ger.

The Cork minors after their great win over Kilkenny in 1979. Back: Jim O'Grady, Willie Cashman, Diarmuid Scanlon, John 'Kid' Cronin, Tadhg Coakley, Ger Whooley, Ger Cunningham, Kevin Hennessy, Kieran O'Driscoll, Denis Forde, Christy Marshall, Martin O'Sullivan, Pat Deasy, John Hodgins, Paddy O'Driscoll, John Dillon, Fr Michael O'Brien. Front: Paddy O'Mahony, Martin McCarthy, Jimmy Greally, Kieran White, Tony Coyne, Christy Coughlan, Tony O'Sullivan, Colm O'Connor, Robbie Hegarty, Denis Walsh, Martin Hennessy, Tom Nott.
The Cork minors after their great win over Kilkenny in 1979. Back: Jim O'Grady, Willie Cashman, Diarmuid Scanlon, John 'Kid' Cronin, Tadhg Coakley, Ger Whooley, Ger Cunningham, Kevin Hennessy, Kieran O'Driscoll, Denis Forde, Christy Marshall, Martin O'Sullivan, Pat Deasy, John Hodgins, Paddy O'Driscoll, John Dillon, Fr Michael O'Brien. Front: Paddy O'Mahony, Martin McCarthy, Jimmy Greally, Kieran White, Tony Coyne, Christy Coughlan, Tony O'Sullivan, Colm O'Connor, Robbie Hegarty, Denis Walsh, Martin Hennessy, Tom Nott.

Amazingly, Cunningham did not win any honours at schools level while attending Deerpark CB. However, it was a different story when he joined the Cork minor hurling ranks.

His keen eye and fast reflexes brought him to the fore as he got a great start to his inter-county career winning two minor All-Ireland medals in 1977 and 1979.

Ger soon broke into the St Finbarr’s senior team and the county medals began to flow with victories in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1988, and 1993.

Goalkeeper Ger Cunningham (right) in action for St Finbarr’s in the Cork County Senior Hurling Championship against Midleton at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1983.
Goalkeeper Ger Cunningham (right) in action for St Finbarr’s in the Cork County Senior Hurling Championship against Midleton at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1983.

The Barrs were not that lucky at national level — they lost the 1981 All-Ireland senior club final to Shamrocks of Kilkenny, but Cunningham believes winning the county championship was the most important thing at his club.

“Without making excuses I do not think we looked at the All-Ireland club championship seriously enough, but in the present era it is a major title to win, but back then it was all about winning in Cork and that’s all that mattered to us,” said Cunningham.

Cunningham broke into the Cork senior hurling team in 1980 with his opportunity coming in a challenge game against Kilkenny.

The Centenary All-Ireland final against Offaly in Thurles was to be the goalkeeper's first medal and two more followed in 1986 and 1990.

The class of Cunningham was also appreciated at national level and he received All-Stars in 1984, '85, '86, and 1990 as well as the Texaco prize in 1986.

Cunningham recalled his inter-county career and said avoiding serious injury had been the key to his successful time between the posts.

Tomás Mulcahy introducing members of the Cork team to President Hillary. From Left: Mark Foley, Seanie McCarthy, John Fitzgibbon, Kevin Hennessy and Ger Cunningham.
Tomás Mulcahy introducing members of the Cork team to President Hillary. From Left: Mark Foley, Seanie McCarthy, John Fitzgibbon, Kevin Hennessy and Ger Cunningham.

“Initially, I was delighted to get into the senior team as I had taken up goalkeeping at a young age and that was a dream come true for me.

“I was lucky that I stayed injury-free and the selectors who picked the teams obviously felt I could do a job for them and at the end of the day I am thankful, as it was a bonus to have gone so far in the game.”

In 1999 Cunningham called time on this career at the age of 38, after giving his all for club and county, including captaining the Blues to glory in 1988.

“To captain my club to a senior county win was very special for me as my parents Jim and Mary were Barrs people all their lives and I wanted to do it so much for them.

“At the end of the day I have to admit I was always proud to play for the club because I couldn’t have achieved anything without their help and encouragement, they gave me throughout my career.”

Cunningham always had a long puck out, as many opposing half-backs will verify, and his tremendous power saw him have a great record at the annual Poc Fada competition.

The event takes place in the Cooley Mountains in County Louth and Cunningham won it seven consecutive years from 1983 to 1989.

Ger did have a stint as manager of the Dublin hurling team but is now back with the Cork management team under Kieran Kingston, having previously worked with the Rebels in the mid-noughties and then again during JBM's second coming as boss.

An avid golfer, Cunningham is now enjoying his retirement with his wife Deirdre, who was an international swimmer, and they were blessed with four children.

If good goalkeepers are worth their weight in gold then Ger Cunningham was priceless.

Ger Cunningham out for a puck with his sons Ben and Sam. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ger Cunningham out for a puck with his sons Ben and Sam. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

FACTFILE: Ger Cunningham is the holder of three All-Ireland senior medals and two minor.

He won six Cork Senior county championship titles with his club St Finbarr’s.

He is also the holder of four hurling All-Stars as well as a Texaco Hurler of the Year prize in 1986.

Ger Cunningham retired from hurling at the age of 38 in 1999.

Ger is now back with the Cork senior squad with manager Kieran Kingston after a spell with Dublin.

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