Drugs shame of talented footballer

FROM dancing with delight alongside team-mates on the football pitch, to sitting alone in a prison cell.

Mike Bacon

NINE months behind bars and Danny Cunningham admits he has learned much.

For the 21-year-old Ipswich plasterer, who has been tipped for success in the football world, 2008 will not go down as a year to remember - a conviction for drugs offences and a stint in Norwich Prison has taken care of that.

From being the darling of his team-mates, having scored the equalising goal for his club Leiston, in an FA Cup fourth qualifying round game against Lewes in October last year, he suffered the indignity three days later of being arrested in front of those same team-mates, as the team bus pulled up outside Lewes' ground for the replay.

A guilty plea, a two-year sentence and Cunningham's life had changed forever.

“I look at people differently today,” he said.

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“I live my life to the full now; I appreciate my freedom so much. Going down the shops, just nipping out when I want. “I even get up much earlier now.

“But the one thing I do know is look at people differently. I've still got lots of friends, but only a few I socialise with or have much to do with. You certainly find out who your friends are.

“You have to realise how valuable life is, how important your freedom is. Family are number one.”

Cunningham pleaded guilty to possession and intent to supply heroin and crack cocaine. It is a stigma he knows it will take a long time to erase.

“I'd never been in trouble with the police before and now I'm very careful who I trust,” he added.

“I've been foolish but I've taken the rap for what happened. I've trusted when I shouldn't have trusted. It's my fault for trusting people and it cost me.

“I've learned a big lesson and I'm not stupid. I know people will look at me and say that's the bloke who was done for drugs.

“But my family know the whole truth so do I, and that's all I care about.”

The police seizure of the drugs at Cunningham's house in Ipswich saw him arrested in front of his team-mates at Lewes FC's ground in Sussex as the team were preparing to get off the coach for their fourth qualifying round replay.

“I remember messing about all the way down to Sussex,” said Cunningham.

“I was man of the match in the first game and was so looking forward to the replay. On the way down to Lewes my sister phoned to say the police had been round my house, she was in tears, but I didn't worry about it and said it was probably nothing.

“Tes Bramble and me were mucking about on the coach, then when it stopped someone called out, 'Can Danny Cunningham come to the front of the bus please.'”

“Tes tried to trip me up as I went down the bus, I really didn't think there was any problem.

“Then I just saw this man and woman with a CID badge thing and they took me to Eastbourne and then back to Ipswich. I couldn't believe it.

“I slept on the way to Ipswich and when I woke up I thought it was just a bad dream. I didn't' know where I was, I was more concerned with the team playing at Lewes.”

But reality soon set in for Cunningham when he was charged with intent to supply and possession. He was sent to Norwich Prison for two years.

“I pleaded guilty, it was no good me trying to get my story over,” he adds.

“It makes me angry to think of how it all happened.

“My family have been so supportive throughout, and I thank them so much. As I have said, they know the truth.”

“LET his feet do the talking now”.

That's the attitude from Leiston first team boss Carl Chenery towards Danny Cunningham, who so badly let his side down on the eve of a big FA Cup replay last season.

After drawing 1-1 at home to Lewes in a fourth qualifying round tie, with a goal scored by Cunningham, the Leiston man then went from hero to zero in the space of 72 hours, being arrested for the subsequent drug offences he went to jail for, as the Leiston team bus pulled up outside Lewes' ground for the replay.

But while no-one at the Ridgeons Premier Division club condones what he did, or what he got involved in, the club is more than prepared to give Danny a second chance.

“As a club we were happy to have him back,” Leiston first-team boss Carl Chenery admits.

“But I'm straight with him and he knows it. He'll get this second chance with us, but no more and he knows that.

“I like to think at Leiston we have brought a bit of stability to his football, his family have been keen to get him back to us as well, which has been good.

“I want to let his feet do the talking now.

“At Lewes it was a big blow for the team, but Danny missed a big opportunity to play in the FA Cup first round and so it was a big blow for him too.

“He's back with us now and it's early days, but I hope he goes in the right direction from now on. He's a very good footballer as most people know.”

Cunningham will be back in action for Leiston at Histon on Saturday in the opening fixture of the new Ridgeons League season.

And all at Leiston, especially Chenery, will hope he hits the ground running.

DANNY Cunningham has a strong message for anyone who could get themselves in trouble with the police.

“Live your time and stay out of trouble. And stay out of prison, it's not worth it.”

Nine months in Norwich Prison have been nine wasted months as far as the 21-year-old is concerned.

“Prison is not the place to be. I'd never been in any trouble before and to suddenly be in prison was just terrible. I tried to deal with it in my head. I decided to try to cope.

“I spent a lot of time doing courses and learning things and I spent plenty of time in the gym.

“Yes I had a Play Station, but I had no freedom and that's everything. I so value that now.”

Back in Ipswich, Cunningham is working as a plasterer, training hard with Leiston and hoping one day to fulfil his dream of becoming a pro footballer.

Those who have watched him play know the talent is there, and who knows if he gets a break.

“I still hope to make it as a pro one day,” he said.

“What's happened to me has happened; If I'm good enough as a footballer, then I'm good enough. But for now I'm back at Leiston and grateful for that.”

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