Barry Kitchener, Harry Cripps, Teddy Sheringham, Terry Hurlock, Tim Cahill, Neil Harris, Paul Robinson. There have been many players who, whenever Millwall fans reminisce, will eloquently wax lyrical about how these are some of the greatest/hardest/most terrifying players they have ever seen at the Old and New Den. Players who we remember growing up watching wishing we could be, who we would cheer and chant their names from the stands and terraces. But what about the others? The players who when we find old programmes in the garage, we would flip it over and have completely forgotten that these players played a part in successful teams of the past. The ‘Steady Eddies’ who may not have scored hat-tricks or hit crunching tackles every week, but those who were reliable and wouldn’t let you down.
For this edition of Unsung Heroes, we look back at a player who not only played for the Lions at both the Old and New Dens, but also represented Millwall in the English top flight at the end of the 1980's, Kenny Cunningham.
Arriving at The Den during Millwall's second season in Division One in the 1989-90 campaign, the young Irish defender originally only signed a contract with the Lions to build up his experience, before flying back home to the Emerald Isle to secure himself a better long-term contract with one of his hometown clubs. Unfortunately for Millwall, their second season in the English top flight would be their last as they were relegated in 20th place. Luckily for Cunningham, he did enough in his five games against Norwich City, Manchester City, Derby County, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea to warrant a new two-year deal, one he gladly accepted.
The South London side's return to Division Two for the 1990-91 campaign saw a drastic increase in game time for the young defender and with players such as Ian Dawes, Keith Stevens, Teddy Sheringham, Jon Goodman, Brian Horne and club record signing Paul Goddard at Bruce Rioch's disposal, the Lions were one of the favourites for an instant return back to the glitz and glamour of Division One. Cunningham may not have been known for his goal-scoring and didn't hit the back of the net in any of his
twenty-four games in all competitions, but solid displays against the likes of Charlton Athletic, AFC Bournemouth, Notts County, Bristol City, Ipswich Town and Plymouth Argyle to name just a few, saw Rioch's side finish in fifth place on 73 points, before going on to lose over two legs to Brighton and Hove Albion in the play-offs.
Cunningham's third season with Millwall in 1991-92 saw a slight reduction in game time, as the defender only took to the field eighteen times in the league and cup, and again this was to be another baron season in the goal scoring charts for the Irishman. Millwall were unable to build on the good form from the season before and although the defender featured in wins against the likes of Plymouth Argyle, Huddersfield Town, Port Vale and Oxford United, heavy defeats against the likes of Sunderland, Watford and Portsmouth contributed to a fifteenth place finish and two early cup exits.
1992-93 was the season where Millwall said goodbye to their old stadium and Cunningham made sure he got much more game time in as a fitting tribute to The Old Den. Featuring in an incredible forty-three games in all competitions, the Irishman excelled in the heart of the Lions' defence and poetically his first ever goal for the club came in the year where we would bid adieu to Cold Blow Lane. Scoring in the Anglo-Italian Cup against the continental Charlton Athletic in a 2-1 home defeat, Cunnigham was an ever-present and featured in big victories against the likes of Swindon Town, Notts County, West Ham United, Leicester City and Luton Town. Millwall finished the season in seventh place, just missing out on the play-offs by six points, but the future was bright as new manager Mick McCarthy had come in to take over at the helm and had a promising side with bags of potential moving into a new state of the art stadium.
The New Den's doors opened for the 1993-94 campaign and this also proved to be Kenny's last full season at the club. His game time was as similar as before and the defender featured in forty-five games in all competitions. Also, as with the season before, the defender found himself again in the goal-scoring charts, but this time it was in a 2-2 draw away at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. Again being an ever-present with the likes of Kasey Keller, Keith Stevens, Andy Roberts and Ian Dawes, Cunningham featured in wins against teams such as Barnsley, Watford, Stoke City, Bolton Wanderers, Peterborough United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Millwall had a fantastic season in their new home and showed no signs of first season nerves finishing on seventy-four points in third place, but a two-legged defeat to Derby County in the play-offs saw the new residents spend another season in Division Two when promotion would've been the fairy tale ending.
The seventeen games that Cunningham played for Millwall in the 1994-95 season would go on to be his last for the Lions, as he was sold with Jon Goodman to Wimbledon in November 1994. In all, Kenny Cunningham featured in 153 games for Millwall and scored two goals in his time in South London. After leaving The Den, Kenny would go on to feature for Wimbledon, Birmingham City and Sunderland before retiring in 2007.
Cunningham may not be the first name that comes to mind when people reminisce about their greatest defenders of all time in Bermondsey, but he will be in a lot of fan's top ten and we will always thank him for his effortless and effective displays at an important and transitional time in our history when it could have potentially all gone wrong.