Cullen aims for Leinster seventh heaven
BRYAN Cullen was a callow 19- year-old when he made his championship debut against Louth on June 1, 2003.
On Sunday -- nine years almost to the day -- Cullen embarks on a new adventure in the Dublin jersey as captain of the reigning All-Ireland champions who open their defence against the Wee County.
Would he settle for a repeat scoreline of the 2003 meeting to kick off this special season for the Dubs? You bet he would. Dublin dominated Louth that day, winning 1-19 to 0-9, with the Dublin debutant at right half-forward contributing three points to his team's winning total.
And 2003 really was a good year for the Skerries Harps player as he won Leinster and All-Ireland U-21 medals with Dublin and made his breakthrough to the senior team. Cullen had to wait until 2005 for his first Leinster senior championship medal, but now he has six to his credit and would love to make it seven this year.
So much has happened in the last nine years for Cullen and for Dublin, but he shudders to think how close he came to missing out on the great adventure of 2011, which ended with his lifting the Sam Maguire Cup and memorably inviting all and sundry to a well-known Dublin night club.
Just two years ago, a recurring back injury was wearing Cullen down and, at one point, he considered opting out of the Dublin panel. This was at a stage when manager Pat Gilroy was overhauling the Dublin set-up after their 2009 mauling by Kerry in his debut year as the Dubs chief.
The new regime, new training and altered playing patterns were calling for some mental and physical adjustment by the more experienced players. It would have been relatively easy to chuck it and step away from the panel to allow the injury to heal.
What would have happened then? Would Cullen have been able to get back on the train that was rolling on a journey towards the Promised Land, one that was not stopping for passengers who refused to pay the price in terms of dedication and sacrifice?
Happily for the player and for Dublin, it never came to that, but it was a close shave. "In Pat's second year in charge, I'd missed the whole National League," Cullen said.
"I tried to get back for our championship preparations and then I kind of broke down again in training. I was having a chat with Pat and I did say to him at one stage, 'sure I'll just leave it for this year' but somehow we didn't take it any further at that stage.
"I just got further treatment and it actually cleared up a bit, so that avoided me having to make that decision, and avoided Pat having to make that decision as well. It cleared up in the nick of time for me."
Cullen has established himself as a shrewd operator in Dublin's 'total football' structure that requires considerable stamina from its practitioners, particularly in the middle third of the pitch.
Is it a career-shortening role?
Cullen smiled and replied: "It certainly is demanding. Anywhere in the middle third is tough in Gaelic games. If I could last another couple of years, I'd be happy. It's hugely energy-sapping, but Pat and our management team are very clever.
"They know the likes of myself and Paul (Flynn) and maybe Michael Darragh (Macauley) and the guys in the middle as well are going to take a little bit longer to recover than the rest of the guys after games, so we would maybe modify our training a little bit after championship matches.
"As for the role itself, I've learned never to look too far ahead in this game. Certainly, I'm only looking towards the championship that lies ahead. I'll be looking to occupy one of the forward berths."
Cullen has achieved his first objective of the summer, purely by being named in Gilroy's starting 15 against Louth. No player can take his place for granted and after claiming a jersey for the Louth match, Cullen looks ahead with anticipation.
There is a sense that Dublin are going out with a big target painted on their backs as Louth want to shoot them down, Kerry want to stamp them into the dust -- every county will be aiming for the Dubs this year.
"I think that goes without saying. History has shown it's tougher to defend the title than to win it," he said.
"In my experience playing for Dublin, everyone loved beating us even when we weren't All-Ireland champions, so the fact that we're on top is just an added incentive for the other counties."
Team-mate Barry Cahill misses out on a start against Louth, but he knows that football is a 20-man game nowadays and if sprung from the bench he will be ready to do a job for the team.
Cahill warns Dublin fans against being complacent about the challenge of Louth and in Leinster generally. "The Leinster championship we won last year was a very important one because we'd lost to Meath the previous year in the semi-final. A lot of new players had come on board in 2010 and 2011 and they hadn't tasted Leinster championship success. Although it was my seventh medal last year, I could see the value in it," he said.
"Ideally, you don't want to go through the back door. You want to be winning games. Winning breeds confidence as they say and at least you can plan your route from that regard.
"When you're in the back door you don't know who you're going to play or where you're going to play. Dublin tend to struggle a small bit outside of Croke Park, so you'd like to stay there and try and get on a bit of a run."