Keiron Cunningham: Man of Steel

Built like a tree with a tackle that could stop a train, Keiron Cunningham is the Paul Scholes of rugby league and deserves every plaudit thrown his way.
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When I first started following rugby league as an 11-year-old in 1996, I didn't like St Helens much. In fact, I disliked them a lot. I felt sorry for the Bradford Bulls, decked out in their glorious golden shirts, as they lost the 1996 Challenge Cup Final to them in spite of Robbie Paul's brilliance.

I especially disliked the fella that was playing in the number nine shirt for them. Keiron Cunningham he was called. As someone who had been fed a diet of football and the odd bit of cricket, I couldn't understand why he was so big. Sky didn't help either. Eddie and Stevo, their cliched commentators, came close to ejaculation every time he touched the ball. "CUNNINGHAM," Eddie would roar as he bounced his way over for another try.

Fuck off Cunningham, I used to think. Fuck right off. Stop crushing the dreams of the team whose kit I liked in that final I saw on the telly.

As I grew older, barring my almost incomprehensible love for Leeds United, rugby league quickly became my sport of choice.

I used to pen my dream team in my school exercise books. On principle I would never pick a St Helens player. They won everything and were a small-time version of Manchester United in my eyes. I certainly didn't pick Cunningham. I was still loosely following Bradford at this point, and could never fathom why 'our' number nine, James Lowes, was never regarded as highly as Cunningham. If he thought his name would go alongside that of Beverley Mouncer's on the inside of my geography textbook then he had another thing coming.

In 1996 Cunningham was climbing the ladder but just a couple of years later he was at the top of it. Swinging from the top of it one–handed, the flash bastard. Even better than he was in 1996, the premier player of his era already – the only Brit to be named in the World XIII. The Welsh Rugby Union tried to tempt him away from his beloved St Helens, but he resisted their advances and continued winning trophies as though it were as easy as one, two, three.

By the time I finished school in 2001, rugby league had taken over my being and, after a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and a bit of begging, writing match reports in my bedroom turned into working in the sports journalism game, predominantly covering rugby league.

"Sky's commentators Eddie and Stevo came close to ejaculation every time he touched the ball. 'CUNNINGHAM,' Eddie would roar as he bounced his way over for another try."

Thanks to some friends in some relatively high places at the clubs in Hull, I managed to find myself a gap in a largely unfashionable market and forge a nice little niche for myself. I was covering games for a wire service, writing numerous programme pieces for the Hull clubs and mingling in and around the coaches and players at press conferences. In my world, this was living the dream.

My affiliation with Bradford had passed now, though, and I supported the game more than I supported a team. The bitter taste that St Helens had left in my mouth had began to subside over time. Covering them in four successive Grand Finals and two successive Challenge Cup Finals as well as seeing them at various northern outposts had helped un–tint my spectacles. Hell, I was even one of just three national journalists that ploughed up the A1 to see them play Gateshead in a Cup game.

Their coaches, initially the slightly brash but utterly brilliant Daniel Anderson, and latterly the polite and articulate Mick Potter, had won me over like no other, and, by some miracle, I enjoyed watching their players. Sean Long, the tattooed pirate pulling the strings from scrum–half, Jon Wilkin, their pin–up of a second–row and, more than any of the others, I loved watching Cunningham.

The master of his art, the best hooker in Super League and potentially the world. The sadness was that the autumn of his career was spent in international retirement, at a time when Great Britain could have done with a leader and a player like him. Courted not only by rugby union, Cunningham’s signature was wanted by many a coach in Australia’s NRL, but he remained loyal to his club.

While contemplating the penning of this piece, it dawned on me that there are actually a number of similarities between Cunningham and another north–west sporting icon, Paul Scholes.

The Manchester United midfielder is expected to hang up his boots at the end of the season and he, like Cunningham, has remained brilliantly loyal to his club throughout his career. Another one–club man, Scholes is another whose country really could have done with him over the last few years. Another who, like Cunningham, could go on. Cunningham’s team–mates want him to, his coaches do and his fans do. His opponents don’t and he won’t. Saturday’s Grand Final defeat to Wigan, the Saints fourth Grand Final loss in a row, was his 496th and final career appearance. There will be no more.

He retires having won five Super League rings, seven Challenge Cup medals and two World Club Championships. He has been voted as Super League’s greatest ever player and has been named in the mythical dream team six times. The Man of Steel prize has eluded him, though. The award, voted for previously by a selection panel and now by the players, acknowledges the hardest, fairest, strongest, fastest and best player over a season, all in one go.

It’s up there with the PFA Player award in football. But football do it different to rugby league. Having never won it in his career, another Manchester United stalwart, Ryan Giggs, was given is last year, more on the basis of his life’s work rather than one season. The same may happen to Scholes this season. But there was no generous, backslapping farewell from Cunningham’s peers. There should have been.

When St Helens move to their new ground in 2012, Cunningham will be on the coaching staff, assisting incoming boss Royce Simmons. The job will be his one day. And what’s more, a statue of him has been commissioned and will stand outside the ground. 1–0 to Keiron on that one, Scholesy.

And as if he needed more things to look back on, he scored the final ever try at Knowsley Road as it closed its doors after 120 years of business. It had to be.

But what does Cunningham himself make of his career. Is he misty–eyed enough to consider giving it another go in 2011? Can he leave having played and lost in a Grand Final? It’s a question he answer in the same way he has tackled his career. Head on.

"The master of his art, the best hooker in Super League and potentially the world. The sadness was that the autumn of his career was spent in international retirement, at a time when Great Britain could have done with a leader and a player like him."

“It is emotional finishing but times move on and I knew my career had got to come to an end sometime,” he said in the cramped tunnel of Old Trafford, the floor that Scholes will tread until May.

“I am going to miss it. I was just sat in there [dressing room] thinking, ‘That’s it, it’s gone - in the blink of an eye’. I remember my debut in ‘94 against Warrington and it has gone like that.

“It has been brilliant and I have enjoyed every moment of it. I have been lucky to be part of some great sides too. It is emotional all round and a pity it didn’t end in a different way, but fairytales aren’t made in rugby league, they are made in storybooks.”

As someone who knows full well how hard journalists have to fight to win column inches about rugby league, it saddens rather than annoys me how little Cunningham’s retirement will register on the national conscience.

If Scholes retired tomorrow, there would no doubt be pages and pages of tributes. And he would deserve it. But so does Cunningham.

A modern great, a legend of the sport. Something I could never have dreamed of when I first saw him play. It seems too, that he could never have dreamed of what he has gone on to achieve.

He adds: “I was born in St Helens, I was on the terraces. It is a dream come true just to pull the shirt on.

“I have never had ambitions to go anywhere else and I love this place. Thanks to everyone who has touched my life, shouted my name, everyone who has supported me. It has been so emotional.

“I have had players I didn’t know had my number contacting me from every club in the league. I think, ’Wow, I must have made a bit of mark in this game’.

“Thanks to everybody, it has been a pleasure.”

The pleasure Keiron, has been ours. And, if I could time travel back to 1996 and sit myself back in that classroom, and if Beverley Mouncer wasn’t married these days, then the name of Keiron Cunningham would most definitely be alongside hers.

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