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Harry’s winning debut

Tuesday, 27th March, 2012

FIRST WIN: Harrison Cunningham made it a winning debut on Saturday night. FIRST WIN: Harrison Cunningham made it a winning debut on Saturday night.

By John Casey

Saturday night’s history-making all New South Wales AFL derby between the Swans and Greater Western Sydney will forever remain a precious moment in time for the Cunningham and Bearman families from BH.

When teenager Harry Cunningham came off the substitute’s bench for the Swans in the third quarter it completed an amazing rise to the elite level for a young footballer who refused to believe he wasn’t good enough for the big time.

And, like Taylor Walker (Adelaide) and Brent Staker (West Coast, now Brisbane) before him, the latest AFL player with a BH football pedigree marked his senior debut with a victory as the Swans cruised to a 63-point win.

In the change rooms after the match, Cunningham grinned from ear to ear as he stood within the team circle singing the Swans club song while being showered with drinks - as is the AFL rookie tradition.

To be surrounded by many AFL premiership players, including superstar Adam Goodes, must have been a surreal moment for the teenager, whose father Mark “Coite” Cunningham was a Best and Fairest winner with North BH before moving to Wagga Wagga.

Mark and his wife Sandra - whose brother is another former North star Brian Bearman - rushed back from a holiday in Fiji to be part of a 12-strong family contingent in the crowd at ANZ Stadium supporting Harry.

As reported in Saturday’s BDT, Harry’s Grandmother Margaret Bearman and aunt Karen Muscat journeyed from BH to share the family excitement. Margaret’s late husband, Brian, often told Harry he would see him “playing footy on the TV one day”.

“Harry flew Margaret over for the match and she was in the rooms after the game, so it was a great moment for the whole family,” proud father Mark explained this week.

“It was a big thrill for us all and it has been such a quick ride - it has been a bit of a blur really.

“I spoke with Harry after the game and he was really excited, just stoked to be part of it,” Mark continued.

Wearing number 44, Cunningham finished the match with four kicks and two marks after entering the game during the third quarter when he was called up by coach John Longmire to replace Luke Parker.

It completed a meteoric rise for Cunningham, who ironically had been on the GWS list until November 2011.

The Swans took a punt on the teenager with pick 93 in the December draft and gave Cunningham a two-week training period to prove himself. It was an opportunity that the youngster grabbed with both hands, soon forcing his way into the Swans side for the pre-season NAB Cup.

Cunningham played all four NAB Cup games for Sydney, kicking six goals, including two majors in his debut appearance against Saint Kilda.

“He’s added real speed and attack on the footy and he has a nose for the goals,” Swans coach John Longmire enthused during the pre-season competition.

“He’s really coachable - he listens, he learns well and he’s lightning quick - so he’s got some really good attributes to play AFL footy and hopefully it’s the start of a long career.”

But it wasn’t until last Thursday that Cunningham was elevated from the rookie list which made him eligible to play in Saturday night’s AFL season opener, which drew a massive Australia-wide TV audience.

While Cunningham managed just 20 per cent game time on debut, his four disposals compares favourably with the first-up efforts of Taylor Waker (five disposals) and Brent Staker (eight).

Cunningham seems destined to play more games for the Swans than the one senior appearance that another former BH player, Robert Caprioli, made when he debuted for Sydney in 1986 wearing number 52.

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