GREG CUNNINGHAM hopes he can force his way back into Giovanni Trapattoni's plans with the Republic of Ireland after winning his fitness battle.
The Galway lad had been out of action with his club, Bristol City, for three months due to an ankle injury but he returned to action last weekend, appearing as a substitute in City's defeat by Derby County last Saturday.
His immediate aim is to work on regaining his match fitness and help out in City's relegation battle -- Derek McInnes' side are just outside the Championship relegation zone, only ahead of fellow strugglers Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday on goal difference -- but long-term he hopes to catch the eye of the Ireland manager again.
Cunningham has of course been capped already, against Algeria, Argentina and Norway in 2010, but once he can re-establish himself at club level, a place in the Ireland squad -- where he hopes to challenge Stephen Ward and Marc Wilson for the left-back slot -- could be on the cards.
"A lot of the younger lads, like Robbie Brady and David Meyler, have stepped up in the last few games and moved from the under-21s into the senior squad and I'd like to do the same," says Cunningham, who celebrates his 22nd birthday next month. "I'm not going to get too caught up in the Ireland thing, I have said all along that I need to focus on my club situation and get that right before I can expect too much at international level, and as of now my only focus is our game with Ipswich next weekend.
"If I'm not doing well with my club then I can't expect to get picked for Ireland, but international football is still a big ambition for me," added Cunningham.
"The manager has shown in the last few games that he will bring in new faces if he feels they are needed and it's great to see lads like Robbie Brady get a run.
"I know what quality Robbie Brady has from playing with him in the under-21s. He was outstanding for us in the last qualifiers and it's amazing to see him play for the seniors in the World Cup games in this campaign.
"Robbie deserves all of his success and Dave Meyler's been given a run too. Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy have been given caps as well. That gives other young players hope that they can get in there as well, their success can only spur on other players like myself.
"So I want to get back in there and play in the side. I think we have a good crop of players coming through now, a lot of good Irish lads playing in the Championship and the squad has been freshened up," Cunningham told the Evening Herald..
Trapattoni is aware of the Galway lad, handing him a starting role in home friendlies against Algeria and Norway as well as a morale-boosting sub appearance against Argentina in Dublin two years ago.
But injuries have slowed Cunningham's progress since then, first up a knee problem he suffered while on loan to Leicester City and then the ankle problem earlier this term, causing that three-month exile which was only ended last week.
"It was such a relief to get back last weekend as it was a very frustrating 12 weeks when I was out," he says.
"I got 45 minutes under my belt against Derby and while the result was disappointing in that we lost, on a personal level it was great to be back out on that pitch again.
"There's never a good time to get injured but it was really hard to take when the injury happened. The move to Bristol City had gone really well. I was enjoying my football and getting first team games but then the injury happened in a game against Peterborough.
"I went to play a ball and the opposing player came in late on me. I did my ankle ligaments and I knew right away it was serious.
"I have had a bad run with injuries at times, but I am back fit now. We have a busy time ahead with a lot of games over the Christmas period and hopefully we can get ourselves away from the relegation zone by this time next month," added Cunningham.
"We have a big game on Saturday against Ipswich, another one of the teams who are around us in the table. But it's up to the manager to decide if I'm ready to start, but I want to get back in and play games for the side, help us climb up the table."
The Galway native took the decision last summer to leave the relative comfort zone of a contract with Manchester City and dropped down a division to the Championship, but Cunningham remains confident that he made the right move.
"I had some great years at Man City and I learned so much there but I knew that it was going to be so hard to make the first team. I was at the stage of my career where I needed games, so I think the move here will turn out to be a good one for me," he added.
"I have settled in really well here, we have had some great results -- we beat top teams in the division like Cardiff and Middlesbrough -- so we have no reason to fear anyone. But in the Championship anyone can beat anyone else. It's a tough league to play in but I am enjoying it."
Cunningham insists that the move away from Eastlands has boosted his confidence. "When you're playing every week you feel so much sharper and your confidence grows," he says.
"When I was at City it came to a point where I knew I had to leave to further my career as I didn't want to spend two or three years at Man City and not play. So it's a nice boost to me now to be at a club where I am going to play every week."