Cunningham slams ex-club Balestier and S.League
He joined Balestier Khalsa in 2010 and quickly established himself as one of the pillars of the club in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
He took on the captain's armband in his second season and was regarded as one of the best defenders in the league.
Besides his playing ability, Paul Cunningham was regarded as brave, hardworking and loyal - an exemplary professional. But the love affair between the Kiwi defender and the Tigers has been shattered.
Speaking to The New Paper recently, Cunningham, 27, slammed the club over the way he was released at the tail end of last year's campaign.
His contract with Balestier expired on the final day of the 2014 S.League season on Oct 31, eight days before the RHB Singapore Cup final which pitted the Tigers against Home United.
In a bid to make him eligible to play in the final, the club offered the defender a 15-day contract extension on Oct 20.
According to Cunningham, he was told he could either sign it or not bother to show up for training any more.
"They gave me a Mickey Mouse contract and basically told me I could take it or leave it," said Cunningham, who was the club's highest-paid player last season.
He declined to state his salary or reveal the details of the proposed deal but added: "I never spoke to the chairman (S Thavaneson) at the time and still haven't.
"Maybe there was a money issue, but at least shake my hand and explain things to me. I'd have understood.
"I mean, I've been with the club for five years; I was their captain. Instead, it was - here's a contract, take it or go."
Cunningham rejected the deal, but still showed up for a few training sessions in the days leading up to the cup final, which Balestier eventually won (he did not play) when they beat the Protectors 3-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
"I felt like an intruder when I went down; just completely left out. So I just said goodbye to the boys and, before the final, I wished them good luck again."
Balestier finished last in the S.League in the two seasons before Cunningham arrived at the Toa Payoh Stadium.
Since then, the club have won two trophies - last season's Singapore Cup and the StarHub League Cup in 2013.
The Tigers also finished fourth two seasons ago, Balestier's best performance in the S.League in 16 years.
The towering Kiwi represented New Zealand up to Under-18 level and moved to the S.League from Australia's Sorrento FC on the advice of former Sengkang Punggol coach Trevor Morgan.
In the middle of 2011, he received an offer to join A-League side Perth Glory as a foreign signing but turned it down after a discussion with Thavaneson, whom he described at the time as a "father figure".
"I'd like to think I played a big part in taking Balestier out of the bottom three," Cunningham said.
"We went from a bottom side to a team who helped decide the destination of the league title, upsetting title contenders on a few occasions.
"I had a good relationship with Thava all these years and so it's really disappointing, and surprising, how things ended."
Cunningham said he is not going to return to the S.League and is now in Switzerland discussing a possible deal with a club there.
He endured an injury-plagued season last year, missing around 10 weeks of football after undergoing knee surgery.
He is not sure if his injury influenced Balestier to offer him the paltry 15-day contract extension.
"My biggest regret was not dealing with my knee during my first season," said Cunningham.
"I took injections and played on because I thought I was doing the club a favour.
"In the end, it went from a one-month absence to a three to four-month recovery process.
"I know how clubs crunch numbers on the number of minutes played. As a professional, I understand and accept that.
"But, again, at least meet and explain things to me. Treat us players as people, especially after five years of service."
Former Tigers' captain slams S.League
While waiting on his Permanent Resident (PR) application last year, Paul Cunningham announced his hope of playing for Singapore in the future.
The Kiwi is now a PR and, on Tuesday, the 27-year-old hopped on a flight to Switzerland to discuss terms with a club there.
Cunningham says a Swiss move will almost certainly end his hopes of playing for the Lions.
But he intends to remain a PR.
"If I get a club elsewhere, I will write in an appeal to say that I'm not leaving permanently - just for temporary employment."
Cunningham does not think he will play in the S.League again and he fears for the competition.
"It would take a lot of convincing and someone like (former Balestier coach) Darren Stewart to make me stay," he said.
"I don't think I could play here because, in five years under the coaches I've worked with, I've learnt more about what not to do than the other way around.
"It's sad because Singapore is my home, but I honestly don't think the S.League will last much longer."
Citing one example of poor coaching at Balestier, Cunningham said: "I went into the Toa Payoh Stadium office before training one day and saw a YouTube clip of passing drills for kids being streamed.
"Later at training, we were put through the exact same five-yard passing drill, for a whole hour.
"Some of the players were looking at each other wondering, 'what the hell are we doing?'."
While he acknowledges that many of the club chairmen have made personal sacrifices to keep their respective teams in the black, he had some harsh words for them as well.
"There are club chairmen who know nothing about football - they just think they do," he said.
"I've seen chairmen head down to pitchside to yell at a player, totally undermining the coach.
"No self-respecting coach would stand for that, but that's the problem, most of the coaches are just puppets."
Cunningham also slammed the use of 10-month contracts for many local players.
"The players have no power whatsoever," he said.
"They can't talk to other clubs while they're under contract. At the same time, they don't know if they are getting an extension at the current club until the last minute.
"Those on a 10-month contract don't even have consistent yearly income and many of them have families.
"I really do feel sorry for a lot of the players in the S.League.
"If things continue this way, the league will die, I'm sure of it."
Thavaneson: Changes had to be made
Balestier Khalsa chairman S Thavaneson wasn't surprised when The New Paper informed him of Paul Cunningham's anger over how the club treated the former defender.
Said the longtime football administrator (above): "His contract expired on Oct 31 and because we had the Singapore Cup final on Nov 7, we gave him an extension until Nov 15.
"He never came back to us on it and so his contract expired. The basis of giving him that extension was so that he could play in the final.
"After that, whether to keep him for 2015, no decision had been made."
Thava said he informed the squad before the cup final that no decisions would be made on any player - local or foreign - until after the cup final.
The message was delivered by him in the team's dressing room after a training session, with Cunningham in attendance.
The 66-year-old insisted that the basic salary terms on the proposed extension was "exactly the same" as the deal the player was on at the time, highlighting that the Kiwi was the highest-paid player at the club.
Going into the 2015 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season, Balestier have released four out of their five foreign imports from last season, including top scorer and marquee player Goran Ljubojevic.
South Koreans Park Kang Jin and Kim Minho are gone, with only Serbian defender Emir Lotinac retained.
"We felt it was time to freshen things up," Thava explained.
"It was the same thing with the local players - we let six of them go.
"Goran scored a lot of goals, but he was a marquee player and the marquee subsidy is now gone."
Balestier have signed Croatian defender Igor Cerina, formerly with Hougang United, and three of his countrymen who are all new to the S.League.
On Cunningham's release, Thava said: "When you join the club, I expect you to be loyal and perform to the best of your abilities. I don't expect you to be at the club forever.
"I have no qualms about (Paul's) service to the club all these years, but we had to make changes."