“Cunners needs some help setting up his social media.”
“Cunners is setting up an Insta and a Twitter account.”
Calling someone the heart and soul of a place tends to get a bit overused at times.
But if there’s ever a time when the phrase doesn’t even come close to capturing a person’s influence, it’s with Ben Cunnington at North Melbourne.
The outpouring of love and emotion following Cunnington’s retirement announcement, all the way up to Saturday’s game and after the final siren from players and fans alike, provided just a glimpse of how universally respected he is.
Often when you hear of a player shunning attention, it’s because they’re in their own little bubble, perhaps don’t care for the benefits it brings, or just maybe aren’t willing to help out if required.
For Cunnington, it was different. No one doubted his character and that he’d do anything for his teammates and those around him. He just didn’t want to talk about himself. At all.
That combination – not wanting to boost yourself, always willing to boost others – is exceedingly rare. Most people try to get there, some claim to be there, but few actually get there and achieve it while staying true to themselves.
It was what made Cunnington so revered.
So with that in mind, if I ever had to think about the likelihood of an active Ben Cunnington on social media, I would have placed it alongside Melbourne having consistent weather for more than a couple days at a time. In other words, no chance.
Yet here we were on a Saturday night in February 2015, air conditioning humming in a Port Lincoln hotel room, taking the reigning Syd Barker Medallist through a basic how to use Instagram tutorial. To the best of my recollection, the key part of the conversation went something like this:
“Reckon you’ll still want to use this after the posts for Woolies?” (The AFL had launched a new partnership deal)
“Do people post about themselves?”
“Well … a lot of people do. But you don’t have to post about yourself.”
“What would people want to see?”
“What are the things you do most?”
*about half a second later*
“People would love that. You can post about the fish you’re catching. You don’t have to be the focus at all.”
“I can do that.”
And the most unlikely Instagram account in North Melbourne player history was off and running.
The reason I share this story is not to self-insert, but ideally provide a bit of an insight for why the internal reaction from everyone at North was as strong as we saw.
While Cunnington would only be dragged kicking and screaming – or whatever his version of that is – into talking about himself, he’d happily help others if needed.
So if others were presented with a rare opportunity to help Cunnington out, they’d leap at it instantly. And that’s why half an hour in a Port Lincoln hotel room is among my most treasured memories of six years working at North Melbourne.
A regular topic of AFL discussion centres around which players were ‘born too soon’ and whether they’d dominate in the current landscape.
Flip it around and Cunnington, if anything, was ‘born too late’. Transport him directly into the 1990s North team and we would have seen a one-man wrecking crew. Imagine his contested work and then resting forward, able to dine out with one-on-ones? People wouldn’t have known what to do against him.
Even allowing for Cunnington’s … let’s say, limited running ability, as I’m sure he’d admit too, the fact he was still a dominant midfield force for so long spoke to his ability. As the game shifted towards one that favoured players who covered the ground far better than Cunnington, still he stood unmoved. Literally.
Speaking post-match on Saturday, Brad Scott summed up Cunnington:
“Some people wrote him off very early in his career. He’s the first to tell you he’s not an aerobic beast, he’s not the greatest runner.
“But I can tell you if he was a great runner there would have been very few players to rival Ben in this generation. Because his inside stoppage work is as good as anyone in the competition. He doesn’t lose contests.”
From the point he returned to the side after a VFL stint in 2012, the next decade saw Cunnington as the midfield fulcrum.
The mark of a good player or team is when you know what their weakness is, but still can’t get to it.
Teams knew Cunnington was vulnerable in space. But he was so imposing around contests and stoppages that nearly every week he’d still manage to dictate the midfield battle.
It could be argued that in his 12th season, 2021, Cunnington found career best form. In his age-30 year he was averaging career highs in disposals, contested possessions, clearances, and inside 50s. All of North’s four wins and a draw came with Cunnington in the side, a trend which shone in neon lights over the second half of his career:
North Melbourne with and without Ben Cunnington since the start of 2015
– With Cunnington: 63 wins, 1 draw, 75 losses
– Without Cunnington: 3 wins, 54 losses
Everything was looking up for Cunnington. Then disaster struck.
To find a diagnosis through a random drug test is a stroke of luck that may have just saved Cunnington’s life.
At that point, and when he showed up to last year’s team photo day gaunt and hairless after completing his chemo, any thoughts of watching Cunnington play football again felt a million miles away.
It’s what has made watching his last 11 games, and especially Saturday’s finale, feel like bonus time.
For all the chat earlier in the season wondering about Cunnington’s future, it was hard – personally, at least – to get invested in any of it. To use the same words as the man himself, perspective was ‘too great’ to worry about hypothetical depth charts.
With the most important thing of all – health – in check, we got to see the full repertoire one last time on Saturday.
Dominant in tight, with 10 clearances and 16 contested possessions.
Once again he dictated tempo inside as North won the clearance count overall.
He showed off that underrated goal sense with two quality finishes. And it was all in just 63 percent game time, to the adoration of the crowd.
Few players get to sign off with a last game like that.
Fewer people who have been in Ben Cunnington’s situation get to sign off on their own terms at all.
For that we should all be grateful.