Greg Cunningham – Cunningham excited by U21 tests

It is a long time since Greg Cunningham sat in a classroom, although his days of learning are far from over – it is just that he focuses on football rather than academics now.

Undoubtedly a quicker learner on the pitch, the 21-year-old has overcome some tough lessons in the last couple of years with injuries and a relegation battle really putting him to the test.

As a player, he was able to comfortably clear each obstacle. But as a person, those sort of things are altogether different and he admits that they challenged him mentally.

There is a neverending list of talented players who failed to return from the fractured tibia that the Galway native suffered whilst on loan with Leicester City in January 2011. It was a massive blow.

The recovery period tested his resolve and hunger, but the Manchester City defender made the most of the facilities, coaches and help that was available to him. He was learning that he cannot do everything on his own.

And that mantra ran through his head again this season as he found himself stuck in a relegation dogfight with Nottingham Forest. It didn’t take long for him to realise how damaging a drop out of the Championship would be for the club.

Cunningham, like any good student, paid attention to those around him, took onboard the necessary advice and showed that he was making the most of his footballing education as he stood out consistently for Steve Cotterill’s team, who did indeed avoid relegation.

‘I think I finished the season playing 28 games altogether, which I am delighted with. It was a tough season as we were fighting relegation and mentally it really pushed me on,’ said Cunningham.

‘You are always learning as a player, but when you are down there in that kind of situation, where people’s futures at the club is at stake, it is tough. Although, we always believed that we were good enough to get out of it and not get relegated.

‘When players come in on loan, they can sometimes get stick for not giving their all, but that’s not me. I always give 100 per cent whenever I play and I think the Forest supporters and all of the players recognised that. I feel that I played my part in their survival.’

With two years still on his contract with City, Cunningham will report for pre-season training in July with the aim of putting what he has learned with Forest to good use. Any advantage he can gain could be worthwhile as it will be even tougher to break in at City following their Premier League triumph.

The former Mervue United schoolboy remains optimisitic and so he should be. City rate him very highly, as does Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, who has capped him three times already.

Yet, before he can focus on senior internationals and pushing for a place in City’s first-team, Cunningham will be in action for the Ireland Under 21s. A friendly against Denmark is followed by a European qualifier with Italy – two games he is eager to win.

Having played in the 2-0 win over Liechtenstein at The Showgrounds last November, he reckons home advantage could be key as they take on Group 7 leaders Italy with the aim of picking up their fifth win of the campaign.

‘I’m really looking forward to the Italy game. We had a great crowd the last time we were in Sligo and got the win, so hopefully that will happen again,’ said Cunningham.

‘I guess you could say that Sligo has been a good omen for us, but there have been a lot of factors in us winning the games that we have. I just think we are a good team and play for each other.

‘There is a good buzz around the Irish set-up now with the senior team heading to the Euros, so we would like to keep that going by qualifying ourselves and we’re confident we can do that.’

Cunningham admits that there is a great bond amongst the players in the U21 squad, mainly because a lot of them have played together at underage level but also due to the influence of manager Noel King.

The mood around each camp is always positive with King entrusting his players to get on the ball, play in an attacking style and to maximise their creative outlets. It is something that Cunningham is excited to be part of.

‘We have some great footballers in our squad. We have fellas who are capable of turning it on and when we have the ball to play in an attractive way,’ he explained.

‘While we want to play good, attacking football – and we have done – there is also a side to us that is very disciplined. When we don’t have the ball, we work hard as a team to get it back and to stop the opposition from scoring against us.

‘I think the Italians are very similar to that, but they are coming to our patch and we can’t let them play the way that they want to. They will have to stop us from playing as we want to make the most of our home advantage.’

Two more tests before he gets to break for summer holidays, Cunningham may not be burdened with the stress of a Leaving Cert student, but he is starting to relish each challenge that comes his way.