Before even pucking a ball, the return of Aaron Cunningham to the Clare panel has provided a massive lift.
He’s sharp on the field and equally as quick off it so the humour of the Shannon man has lifted the spirits of his teammates. Supporters are well aware of the damage Aaron can do on the pitch netting two goals against Tipperary in the 2017 All-Ireland quarter-final in his last outing.
Speaking to The Clare Echo ahead of their National Hurling League opener at home to Carlow, Aaron admitted, “It’s great to be back with the lads, I’ve been away for a while, I’ve gone back a good bit in fairness so I’ve a load of work to do, it’s good being back in around them, it’s like I never left in one way”.
“There’s a few new people I wouldn’t have known before so making the effort to get to know them, I feel older now than when I left, I was hanging onto one of the young lads tags when I left and now I’m definitely one of the more older mature lads in the dressing room. I feel like I’ve slipped back in seamlessly enough, I know pretty much everyone there, the craic and banter is good so it hasn’t been too hard to get back into it”.
No “major” changes are observed regarding the standard and commitment expected of inter-county players while he has been gone. During the two and a half years when he was travelling, Cunningham was reliant on GAAGO and Twitter to be kept in the loop for matters Clare hurling. “The first year they got back to Croke Park, I was actually in a pub in San Francisco with Gudgy O’Connell and Bobby Duggan watching them play Galway, it was weird because the three of us would have been involved and we were there looking on. They were a margin away from being back in the All-Ireland final in Croke Park, I reckon they would have given Limerick a fair crack of it that year, I don’t think Limerick would have wanted to see Clare win that game either, that was a serious chance and they seemed to be back performing at their best.
“Last year was a bit of a flop, that has been the problem in Clare the last number of years the consistency, going up and down. Hopefully this year we can get back to Croke Park again and try take it higher from there. It was strange watching it, I fell into the supporter zone, I had a group of friends from different counties, we’d meet up and watch the games, it was enjoyable but I’d be lying to say I didn’t miss it at times”.
As his teammates were training away in Caherlohan during the final two years of the Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor era, ‘Hammy’ was living the good life. “I had an amazing time away, it was something I always said I’d do but I kept putting it on the long finger, it was in the plans for many years and eventually I decided it was time to go. It was probably the best thing I ever did, I don’t regret a minute of it, I know everyone is completely different and some people certain things in their life are more important than other people but if I could encourage anyone if they are thinking of going to do it because it’s a great experience and the time to do it is when you’re young, there is a lot out there in the world and it’d be a shame to be stuck in the one place for your teenage years or your early twenties, when you can do it when you don’t have too many permanent ties, it came at the right time and I’ve no regrets”.
When he returned to Ireland in December, linking back up with Clare wasn’t on his agenda. “Part of me was saying I had my shot and it had passed. Coming home this Christmas I wasn’t sure if I’d stick around but a few things fell into place and I decided I’d stay around for a while. When the opportunity came I thought it was a good time being a bit older to give it a lash and see if I was able for it and if I could contribute anything”.
After his sister Kelly got married, Brian Lohan approached Aaron about returning to the panel. “Brian being Brian would entice anyone in. Growing up watching him and listening to him, he is one of the heroes of Clare hurling, to have him at the top job is exciting for everyone, you always want to see someone who has lived it and done it. He didn’t have to say too much, I was surprised more than anything that he was willing to have a shot on me and give me a chance, as soon as the option came I had to grab it with two hands and give it a lash”.
Now part of the teaching staff at Scoil Na Tríonóide Naofa in Doon, Aaron didn’t rule out future stints abroad. Gelling into the dressing room has been a breeze but getting his hurling back to the levels expected has been more difficult. “I’m going from zero to a hundred, I tried to tell myself I hadn’t gone back too much but the last couple of weeks being back in with the lads and hurling at that level it is fairly evident that I have a mountain to climb if I’m going to be anywhere near inter-county hurling this year”.
With two and a half week’s training under his belt, the Wolfe Tones sharpshooter is not too confident of getting game-time during the League. “They have a serious pre-season done and are two months ahead of where I’m at without having taken the years off, I’m way off the mark at the moment, I can see a big improvement in the last two weeks so hopefully I can keep going that way and maybe towards the end of the League I might get a look in”.