Cunningham's Time has come
HE'S only 19 years old and looks as if he should be preparing to sit his Leaving Cert, instead of facing two World Cup-bound teams in international matches at the RDS.
But Galway-born defender Greg Cunningham says that he's not over-awed by the double challenge of making an impression with Manchester City and the Republic of Ireland.
Cunningham has already taken some steps towards the big time as he made his first-team debut for Manchester City in the season just gone, clocking up three appearances under Roberto Mancini. International recognition has yet to follow, but it's a sign of how much time Cunningham has on his hands that he's still eligible to play for the Irish U19 side when they travel to Ukraine next week , hoping to jump the last hurdle on the way to the European Championship finals.
He could still be on the plane to Kiev with the U19s, depending on what Giovanni Trapattoni decides when he names his official senior squad on Thursday for the friendlies against Paraguay and Algeria, but Cunningham says that he's earned his current status on merit.
"It's a big step-up for a young player, playing in the Premier League and international football, but I think I can deal with it," Cunningham told the Evening Herald.
"I certainly didn't feel out of place when I trained with Ireland this week. I enjoyed the training sessions. We only had 14 for the first session on Sunday but I really enjoyed it.
"In terms of City, it is a massive leap from playing schoolboy football in Ireland to the first-team squad at City.
"I think I got used to it soon after I moved up into the senior squad from the academy team. Sometimes you do have to take a step back and realise that you are training with all these superstars, some of the best players in the world.
"You can't be in awe of them. You respect them but you can't stand back and admire them, they are just players at the end of the day, so I have to keep working hard and think I am as good as them because I am trying to take their place in the City team."
Three sub appearances was Cunningham's tally from last season as he filled in at left-back, and the former Mervue United man is also hoping to slot into the same position in the green shirt.
"Left-back is up for grabs a bit with Ireland, it's a position that a few players are chasing. It would be such an honour to play there, when you look at the left-backs Ireland have had in the past, people like Kevin Kilbane, Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton and Ian Harte. If I do get a chance, I will work as hard as I can to make my family and my country proud," added Cunningham, who is unsure what his international bosses have planned for him, as it's still unclear if U19 team boss Sean McCaffrey will be able to call on Cunningham for the three-game qualifying campaign against England, Bosnia and hosts Ukraine.
"All I know for now is that I'm here training with the senior squad and I'm due to be here until Friday at least. I don't know if I'll be kept on for the seniors or allowed go away with the U19s, it's out of my hands. As I understand it now, I have been pulled out of the U19 squad but that could change later in the week," he says.
"It's hard to balance the two, the chance to play for the senior team at the RDS or going to Ukraine to help the boys in the U19s qualify for the European finals. Hopefully I will get to make my senior debut, but we'll see how it goes.
"Winning a cap next week would make up in some way for missing out on the Champions League with City. Playing for my country would be massive for me; like any Irish lad I dreamed about winning a cap for Ireland and now I am close enough.
"It's been a great season for me already, making my debut for City and getting three first-team appearances, now to win a senior cap would be an amazing finish to the season for me," added Cunningham, who has two full seasons left on his deal at City, having signed a new contract in January.
"I suppose things happened in bursts for me at City over the season. I got my debut in January, against Scunthorpe in the FA Cup, but then didn't play again for a good while. I got back into the first-team squad towards the end of the season, I made my league debut against Birmingham in April, then I was out again for a few weeks and came back in on the last day of the season when we played West Ham.
"To get three appearances was great for me, I know it was only a few minutes in the two league games but it was great for me to get my Premier League debut out of the way.
"The manager was very encouraging, he told me I had done well, he said to go off and enjoy the experience with Ireland, get a good rest over the summer and come back strong for pre-season, make sure I come back fit. We're going to the USA for the start of pre-season so that's my aim to do well in the games over in America and try to take it from there.
"There is such a buzz around the club right now. It was very unfortunate that we missed out on the Champions League but next year will be looking to push on and make sure we're in the Champions League.
"Last season we finished in mid-table, in the season just gone we finished fifth so that is progress, finishing fifth and going so close to the Champions League spot is an achievement in itself. The club is on the up and it's an attractive club to be at -- we really are moving forward as a club."