Born in Shepherd’s Bush, John Cunningham’s return to Killybegs was a fruitful one. As a leader, he was central to a huge trophy haul for club and county.
Having never kicked a Gaelic football until his return in 1980, he didn’t take long to make his mark before going on to captain successful Donegal minor and U-21 sides.
That said, he would have known all about Gaelic football as his father Andy and uncle, Willie had both played inter-county football before emigration ended their promising careers in the 1950s.
No doubt, the skills of Gaelic football would have been handed down in West London and the dream of playing in places like MacCumhaill Park and Croke Park were always greater than the local Loftus Road, home of Queens Park Rangers.
When John returned home in 1980 to begin his secondary education in PCC Falcarragh, Gaelic football began to take a hold and the grip has never been released.
But it was something of a shock: “Arriving here from London in 1980 and not having a clue how to play Gaelic football. My father had taken me to Wembley when Donegal were playing in the 1970s; that was one of my first memories of being at a football (Gaelic) match.
“But coming home in 1980 and going to the college in Falcarragh and starting to learn the game and ending up as captain of the minor and U-21 team was special.
“To captain the Donegal minors to win the Ulster championship and the U-21s to win the Ulster and All-Ireland; we had some great times.
“I always played a lot of soccer and it was a matter of adapting to the new game. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I was able to do it,” says John.
There were plenty of good days growing up with Killybegs, winning every underage title that was available and Pobalscoil also achieving plenty of big days.
John captained Donegal to Ulster Minor success in 1985 under the management of Jimmy White and then led the Donegal U-21s to Ulster and All-Ireland honours in 1987.
Being part of the Donegal senior set-up was a natural progression and probably his greatest day in a Donegal jersey came in the 1990 All-Ireland semi-final against Meath when he nullified the threat of Colm O’Rourke in a game that just got away from Donegal in the last ten minutes.
But like all careers, there were disappointments, none more so than the Ulster final of 1992 when referee Jim Curran ordered Cunningham to the line after a failed attempt at shouldering Dermot McNicholl over the sideline.
The Killybegs man failed to get his place back as clubmate Barry McGowan came in as a substitute and kept his place for the All-Ireland semi-final and final.
“It certainly didn’t finish the way you would have wanted it but 20 years is a long time and you have to live with it.
“It was a shock at the time. I had picked up a booking ten or so minutes before that and I suppose that didn’t help.
“I still thought, the same as everyone else thought, I wouldn’t be getting sent off for it,” said John.
The pain of not being directly involved was dulled to some extent by the success at club level.
“It was a big year all round, and especially as there were four of us from Killybegs on the panel. Then we finished up as county champions as well, which would have been a big plus, especially after the disappointment of the year before, losing the Ulster club final (against Castleblaney).
“We lost that final and came back to win the Donegal championship that year.
“It wouldn’t have made up for it; like every young lad, you dream of playing in an All-Ireland final and then to get so close and not to take part, it was hugely disappointing.
“But at the same time, that’s a personal thing. But then when you see the amount of people after the game, the elation and how much it meant to everybody.
“I remember meeting my mother and father afterwards. They had emigrated back in the ‘50s and it was a huge day for people like that. You just move on and you say that the team was good enough to come back and try be part of it again, but it didn’t work out that way.”
John’s love of Gaelic football was with him from a very early stage. “I remember in 1985 myself and Barry McGowan signed for Finn Harps. I went and played a game but didn’t fancy it. Brian McEniff asked me into the panel then and I came on as a sub against Mayo in Ballyshannon. To be honest all I wanted to do was play Gaelic football.
“Although in fairness, I always enjoyed playing soccer any time I got a chance, but we were so busy playing county football for over 13 years, there weren’t many opportunities.”
Anyone who knows John will know that he would call a spade a spade and his answer to the question of what he enjoyed from playing the game is interesting.
“I had a habit of not really dwelling on any success; once it was done, it was put to the back of the mind and move on. Obviously, we met some great people and we had some great days, even the days that didn’t work out as you would have wanted, it was all part of your sporting experience.”
Asked if there were any lessons for the players of today, he pointed to the fact that young Donegal players are not getting the competition they did in his youth: “In fairness, since Jim (McGuinness) has come in they have knuckled down and are very committed. While I mightn’t enjoy the way they play, at least they’re going about their business in a professional way.
“We haven’t had much success at minor and U-21 since we won the U-21, in fairness to Jim he has taken it to another level. But I think we don’t have enough schools playing football in Ulster.
“You have St. Michael’s (Enniskillen) winning the McRory Cup and you have Peter Canavan’s school in Cookstown winning the All-Ireland. I feel our schools are not playing at a high enough level.
“When we were in Falcarragh we were always in the North playing a good standard of team; De La Salle were playing colleges and Eunan’s also. I think we need our players playing at a higher level. It definitely had a big bearing on us at the time,” he said.
Playing with a great Killybegs team which won five senior county titles was a major high point for the resolute defender.
“We had some fantastic players, apart from the county players. The likes of Paul and Denis Carbery, they wouldn’t have been out of place on any county team.
“The only thing that came up short for us was our numbers were a little short and the fishing didn’t help. When we were at our height, in the Ulster Club final, we had six or seven away fishing and four or five came back to play in the final. From a preparation point of view, it wasn’t ideal.
“If we had won the Ulster club, it would have been the icing on the cake. We went close a few other times, but we had won everything from U-12 upwards.
“We were fortunate to have so many players coming through at the one time.”