Up and Adam – the Cunnington defence

Happy new year everyone. It’s 2014 and still we’re bemoaning the lack of goals from and understanding afforded to a Cambridge United striker… some things never change.

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The creation of a January transfer window has also established some other, subsidiary narratives: a whole new market of sacked managers, employees who hit ‘F5’ all day to see if their team has managed to lure Daryl Clare out of retirement and, most significantly, the righting of the summer windows ‘wrongs’ via a flurry of loan moves and torn-up contracts. But more of that later.

In a season such as this, with very few downs and so many ups, it is perhaps inevitable that someone would end up becoming the bête noire of the Abbey faithful, and that person, sadly, is Adam Cunnington.

Let’s go back to those halcyon days of… summer 2013. It was a simpler time etc, and expectations were still relatively low, following our limp over the line to a mid-table finish and the somewhat low-octane signings of a defensive midfielder and a centre-back from Dartford.

All of that changed, however, with the signing of a tall, pointy-elbowed goal-machine from Tamworth, who had snarled, booted and nutted his way to 21 goals last season. No doubt he was on the radar of teams with more financial clout than the U’s, and once again we have to doff our cap to the work done by Money, Jez and Marcus Law, a temporary scout at the time.

Indeed, his signing, along with our ability to hold on to many of our greatest assets from the previous few seasons (Elliott, Dunk and Berry… there weren’t many) and the shipping out of some fringe members of the squad, meant that we began to believe more in the transfer policy mantra as exhorted by Jez. Add some sprinkles of Donaldson, the wonderful Maxwell and the rejuvenation of Coulson, and we really looked like an attacking unit going into the first game of the season.

Cunnington’s U’s career has so far been strong rather than prolific. Employed in le role du Gash of winning flick-ons, drifting out wide and often featuring as a fifth midfielder, he seems to have similarly divided opinion.

While he undoubtedly lacks the finesse that was such a big part of Gash’s Herculean performances in his second season, Cunnington has shown himself to be willing and extremely determined.

But willingness and determination do not a footballer make, even at this level. If so, Delano Sam-Yorke’s obvious enthusiasm when he leaves the touchline for the pitch would make him a Balon d’Or candidate. Instead he’s off to try to help Lincoln salvage mediocrity from a season that has seen them veering dangerously close to the regional football trapdoor. But I digress.

Cunnington’s real strength lies not just in his work-rate and obvious aerial ability (I would contend that Sam-Yorke would’ve been more effective alongside him, running on to his flick-ons instead of as a replacement for him) but also in his movement.

Let’s be honest, he’s neither blessed with pace off-the-mark, nor the kind of fleet-footedness that make Donaldson, Arnold and Dunk such a joy to watch, but he’s so good at stretching defences, running to the corners and taking a centre-back with him. Dropping deep and, again, taking a centre-back with him and creating space behind the defence for someone such as Berry, Appiah, or Dunk to run, nay tear, in behind. It isn’t that he boxes quickly, it’s that he boxes clever.

We’re not short of praise for Richard Money as a coach, and again is abilities are evident in the way that Cunnington has adapted his game over the course of the season.

Early on, he won flick-ons and not much else, perhaps played a little too deep, but was usually in the box to score. Latterly, he’s been deployed in a more team-oriented style of play – someone who makes space for others. But, my word, does he still want to score goals.

Our Adam strikes me as a player who remembers every miss just as clearly as he remembers every goal. You can see the mental indexing of each time the net bulges and the lamentable anguish on his face when he blasts over; he feels each miss rather than just regrets it. And that’s where we are now: nine barren games… something that seems to have put him into a bit of a funk.

Cunnington has so far toiled manfully through injuries to others and through his own season-long niggles. Burdened as he has been for long stretches of the season as the only true, proven senior striker at this level, and with his own indubitable drive to make the most of the opportunity he’s been given (not many these days come into the professional game as late as he has), is it any wonder he keenly feels the weight of expectation?

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Cunnington and Elliott were to be Money’s first choice pairing. An awkward battering-ram partnership that would never give up on a lost cause, chase everything down, win absolutely everything from set pieces and profit from each others’ flick-ons.

After all, what were the alternatives? Pugh has been frozen out, Sam-Yorke is the kind of player that is signed as an understudy (and judging by Jez’s comments and the loan he’s just gone out on, is someone that Money feels has failed so far to prove his worth at this level), Hughes seems to now be a feature of the midfield, Arnold was signed as a winger who could cover up top, and Donaldson… well he can play where he wants.

We were treated to a taste of ‘what could be’ during our routine 2-0 win against Salisbury in October. For the first 10 or so minutes, Cunnington won headers and Elliott ran on to them. An embryonic understanding seemed to be forming. It was non-league poetry – like a less redemptive Phillip Larkin.

Then Salisbury came back into it, Elliott clearly lost confidence in his hamstring, became less mobile, felt a tightening and was subbed before half time. I think I speak for all of us when I say that this partnership is something we’d like to see more of.

In the meantime, we’ve been treated to the Cunnington and Appiah show, one that has borne many goals (for Appiah) and has maintained our position toward the head of the table. There is no doubt that, while Appiah is able to manufacture his own luck, Cunnington has been a huge part of Appiah’s effectiveness during this period. But Kwesi is a much more selfish player than either Cunnington or Elliott and would usually tend to favour shooting or holding on to the ball when others would, perhaps, have taken a different option.

Cunnington is currently stuck in a space-time continuum of non-league symmetry (think of an Escher’s Stairs, but set in Bluewater) similar to our dear and not-forgotten Michael Gash’s first season. Bags of effort and excellent defensive work, lot’s of vital link-up play and some measure of success, but still missing the ingredient that separates vital strikers from the rank and file: goals.

I have no doubt he’ll get there quicker than Gash did, mainly because he’s playing in a much more fluidly attacking team – one that creates plenty of chances. Then the indexing will recommence, the anguish dissipate and we’ll all wonder who this Gash chap was anyway and what all the criticism was about in the first place… just like we did with Gash.

And in continuing this utopic, whimsical and not entirely accurate vision of the rest of our season, we’ll realise that in partnerships one player doing well doesn’t mean that the other is doing badly. And then, well, who knows how far we could go…

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