Cunningham returns to the fold

Monday, March 23, 2015





Team Taranaki are excited to confirm the signing of Paul Cunningham from Singapore based professional S League club side BalestierKhalsa FC. The imposing 28 year old central defender will undoubtedly bring significant experience and leadership to an already talented squad on his return to the province that he grew up in.

Cunningham was considered one of the S Leagues top players in recent years following a successful five year professional playing career, but despite offers to continue playing professionally overseas he and his wife Sarahhavenow made the decision to return to Taranaki as they look forward tosettling back in New Zealand.

“Sarah and I are excited for the next adventure and settling into life back in Taranaki. I have enjoyed a successful professional football career overseas which has been put on hold for now. During my time away I have always looked forward to the time when I am able to return to the region I grew up in and for now the timing is right. Hopefully I will be able to bring something new to Taranaki football through my experiences overseas and with Ian’s vision for the team it was easy for me to buy into.”

Team Taranaki Coach Ian McGrath is thrilled with the addition, but admits that the timing of the opportunity was totally unexpected. “I have always kept in touch with Paul and have followed his progress in recent years. During that time, I have made no secret of my desire to involve him, but I was not aware that he was coming home until recently andwhen I found out that was not the case, I made contact immediately”

He added. “I have spent time explaining our vision, the wider elements of our three year plan and what we hope to achieve. I felt that it was important for him to understand all of that before we even talked together about his involvement as a player. His response was very positive and I am very pleased that he wants to be a central part of driving that project going forward”.

The former Francis Douglas Memorial College student’s overseas football journey started in 2002 when he left his home town of Oakura to sign on for Middlesbrough Football Club’s Youth academy in the UK before signing a four year scholarship deal with West Virginia University (WVU) in the United States where he graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Finance and a Masters of Business Administration.

He combined study with playing football as part of a sporting scholarship for the West Virginia Mountaineers, a teamthat enjoyedvery successful seasons in his final two years, winning arguably the best conference in the nation the “Big East” and making the “Sweet 16” in the NCAA tournament.

With University commitments completed, Cunningham headed to England to seek out a professional football contract. A month long trial with Millwall Football Club followed; however, even though the experience ended in disappointment, itled to an immediate opportunity with local semi-professional side Fisher Athletic Football Club.

Though, after a short stint in South East London, Cunningham made the move to Perth, Australia and found a job playing for the well-established and successful Sorrento Football Club, where he stayed for the next eight months.

It was during his attachment to Sorrento, that Cunningham was invited to train with A-league side Perth Glory and through the contacts gained with both the Glory and Sorrento clubs that he landed the opportunity and finally a further contract to play professionally in the Singapore league.

Following successful trials, he signed a one year contract for S.League club BalestierKhalsa FC for the 2010 season and was subsequently rewarded with a further two year contract and the captains armband to go with it, a position he held for 4 years until he left the club at the end of the 2014 season and during that time helead the club to their highestleague finishing position in the 2013 season and was one of five players shortlisted for S League Player of the Year.

Cunningham commented “Playing professionally in Singapore really was a dream come true, when I arrived in 2010 I didn’t realize how lucky I was and I saw it as a stepping stone to bigger and better leagues. It didn’t take long for me to change that mind-set and in subsequent years I found myself fending off interest from A-League Clubs and other top Leagues in Asia. Singapore has a great lifestyle which both Sarah and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I was able to make a name for myself through my football endeavours which in turn opened up opportunities for me off the pitch.”

McGrath is all too aware of the qualities that Cunningham will bring. “His playing credentials are without question; a dominant player, a proven leader. He has an exemplary attitude towards the game, on and off the pitch; he is a real competitor and a strong personality. This signing is a major coup for the province.”

Balestier Khalsa FC had finished last in the S.League in the three seasons before Cunningham arrived and his influence in turning the fortunes of the club around over the five years of his involvement is very evident.

The club won two major trophies – the StarHub League Cup in 2013 and the Singapore Cup in 2014; earning them a spot in Asia’s top cup competition the AFC Champions League which they are playing out currently. These two trophies were the first ever silverware the club had ever won and Cunningham was a major driving force behind that success. The Tigers also finished in the top four in the league for two seasons running, Balestier's highest achievement in the S.League in 16 years.

Despite a high profile, numerous sponsorship deals and a very successful career overseas, Cunningham is now looking forward to his involvement with Team Taranaki and is extremely positive about contributing to the future of football in the region.

“I grew up with my father running New Plymouth City FC, and I know first-hand the hurdles TT faces with some top players in the region having strong affiliations to local clubs. My motivation is to try and break this mould and attract the best possible squad on a weekly basis to come together and represent our province. With the structure of Team Taranaki there is no reason why this can’t be achieved. With Ian driving a campaign for Taranaki Football, I really look forward to being a small part of making that vision a reality as it is not every day that someone with so much enthusiasm comes along!”

He added. “I like the fact that there are both immediate and long term goals in play here. Over the years Taranaki has produced some great talent but the problem is without top flight football on offer it is impossible to retain players or promote player development. We either lose players to other regions or worst case scenario restrict player progress. As a region we need a development pathway that provides a standard of football which far exceeds what is on offer currently. I believe Team Taranaki could be the avenue for this, which is why when Ian reached out it wasn’t difficult for me to get involved.”

Paul Cunningham is expected to link up with the squad in early April.