Following their four-year absence from the Championship, Preston North End returned to England’s second-tier this season and are now just one step away from reaching the Premier League for the first time in the club’s 135-year history.
In order to sustain security and safety in any post-promotion campaign, the team must build from the back and construct a reliable defence, something the Lilywhites looked to do over the summer by snapping up Republic of Ireland international Greg Cunningham.
The 24-year-old, who has four senior caps to his name, arrived at Deepdale from League One and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy champions Bristol City back in July following a lack of first-team opportunities at Ashton Gate.
Having started his career in his homeland before sealing a move to Manchester City when he was just 16, Cunningham is working his way back up towards the top-flight as he bids to help Preston cement their place back in the second tier.
Meanwhile, on the international front, Ireland face Bosnia in a Euro 2016 play-off, meaning Cunningham could potentially come face-to-face with some of Europe’s finest next summer after earning a recent recall.
The left-back spoke exclusively to Shoot about last season’s silverware success, life at Preston, his international honours and his esteemed encounter with Lionel Messi.
You joined Preston from Bristol City over the summer. How are you enjoying life at your new club?
“Yeah, I am really enjoying it. I have settled in very quickly with the boys, the staff and everybody at the club. They have been very welcoming. I am enjoying it.”
Last season, you lifted the League One title and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with City. How great was it to be a part of that?
“Yeah it was. It was a successful season. The boys down there are fantastic and they deserved it. Winning the league and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and getting the glamour tie against West Ham United in the FA Cup, it was close to the perfect season.”
Both clubs were promoted from League One last season but what made you switch? What was it about Preston that made you think, “This is the right club for me.”
“I needed first-team football. I wasn’t getting that during that season at Bristol. When Preston came in over the summer and I spoke with the manager [Simon Grayson], he sold the club to me and I am very happy with that decision.”
What are the club’s ambitions this season?
“First and foremost, you have to secure your position in the Championship. But we have got a good squad there and I think without being naive, you would be happy with a mid-table finish. It is one of the most competitive leagues in the world, I think. You look at the teams that could be fighting for promotion, they could have bad seasons and be down there. There are no easy games in this league. Every game is just as tough as the next. You have to approach it the right way and make sure you get the results because if you get a few bad results together, you could be down in the relegation zone. But if you pull a few strings and get a few good results, then you could be up there and in the play-offs. It is very competitive.”
You played against your former club, Bristol City, earlier this term. Did that give you an extra incentive to put in a performance?
“I think you are always a bit more pumped up for a game against your old club, but once you cross the lines, it is just another opposition. It was great to catch up with the lads after the game because I got on really well with them over the last couple of years.”
It is still early days for you at your new club but what sort of impression has manager Simon Grayson had on you?
“Yeah, he has just gone and told me to play my own game. The staff here really fill you with confidence and that is what it is all about. They said that is why they signed me, because the way I am playing and work hard. That is all I can ask. He [Grayson] was another determining factor. Like I said, I needed first-team football, so when I spoke to him, he really sold the club to me and his style of management as well.”
You’ve unfortunately lost Jermaine Beckford to injury but are you still confident you have enough goals in the squad?
“Yeah, there is. It was a massive blow losing Becks; but in saying that, we have signed Stevie May and brought in Eoin Doyle on loan for the season so that has given us more firepower up front along with Will Keane and Joe Garner. We have the strikers there that can score the goals. It is only a matter of time.”
You made a handful of appearances for Manchester City, including in the Premier League and Europa League. What was that experience like?
“Yeah, it was crazy. I really enjoyed my time there, coming through the ranks from the academy and the reserves, you could see the club changing over the years with the investment, to the facilities and the world-class players that are on show there today. It was a great part of my career, but I am looking forward to the challenges ahead at Preston and my future career.”
How tough is it for youngsters to breakthrough at City now with the money they have?
“It will be tough for youngsters to come through, but I am sure there are a lot of world-class youngsters that you will end up seeing in the first-team soon. I suppose when money isn’t an object with City, you will find it a bit harder for youngsters to breakthrough and cement their place in the first-team, but it is not impossible.”
Could you ever envisage them being where they are now back when you moved from Ireland in 2007?
“No, I didn’t at the time. I think I signed and then [Thaksin] Shinawatra took over and that was when the money started to come into the club. But even before that, the thing that appealed to me most about Manchester City was the record of youth players getting through to the first-team. That was a massive incentive with Jim Cassell and Alex Gibson at the academy. That is what sold it to me. There work ethic at the academy to get the players through was the main factor.”
You have four international caps for the Republic of Ireland. What does it mean to you to represent your country?
“It is the biggest honour, as far as I am concerned, for an Irish player to represent your country at any level. But to make a couple of appearances for the senior team is, without being cliché, a dream come true. So back now in the Championship with Preston, I am hoping now that I can keep my performances as consistent as possible for the club and then I will hopefully get the call-up again.”
You were recalled earlier this season but had to withdraw due to injury. How disappointing was that?
“Yeah, it was. It was the game just before the international break against Ipswich [Town]. But that is football, these things happen. Like I said, I have just got to concentrate on club football and hopefully that will take care of itself. But it was good to get the initial call-up to the provisional squad; it just shows that I am back in the frame again. It was a nice boost to get the initial call-up. I wasn’t really expecting it. It is a nice incentive to keep working hard and keep plugging away.”
Ireland play Bosnia in the Euro 2016 play-offs. How great would it be to qualify for next summer’s finals?
“Oh it would be massive. There is a great squad there; experienced, but there are a lot of young players involved as well. It will be tough, but I don’t see why we can’t qualify.”