Sunday 22 September 2019

Safe hands: 'I can laugh about Mikey Sheehy's goal now, but at the time I had to go into hiding for six months'

Goalkeeping hero Paddy Cullen talks about the highs (and lows) of his time in front of the Dublin net

Niall Scully

It's almost lunch hour in Dublin 15. Paddy Cullen's mobile rings. It's Alan Larkin, Dublin's powerful centre-back of the 1970s.

The Dubs of that legendary era stay in touch. Meeting up for a chat. Golf outings. Trips away. Charity fundraisers. And Alan is the one that glues it all together.

Paddy is in Brady's, near Blanchardstown village. He's having a small pot of tea. Nobody would blame him for having a quick look over his shoulder just in case Mikey Sheehy tries to lob a sugar lump in his cup!

People still remind him of that famous incident in the 1978 All-Ireland SFC final when the Kerry maestro chipped in the cheekiest and most controversial free in the history of the game.

"I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had to go into hiding for six months!" smiles Paddy. "Mikey says he couldn't believe the goal was allowed. He said he took the quick free, expecting it to be called back.

"It is still being shown. People are still baffled by it. They enjoy looking at it. It's an iconic moment in sport.

"It was just one of those things. Some people say 'ah Paddy, they keep talking about Mikey Sheehy's goal, but they don't talk about your penalty save in the '74 final'. People only remember your last mistake!"

Paddy Cullen penalty save.JPG
1974. Dublin's Paddy Cullen saves Galway's penalty during the 1974 All Ireland Football Final. Picture Credit: Sportsfile

It was Dublin against Galway in the '74 final. Paddy made a crucial save from Liam Sammon's penalty at a crucial juncture of the game, one of many outstanding saves he made that September day.

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"Even looking at the World Cup, I'd see goalkeepers making up their mind to dive one way only to see the ball go right down the middle.

"In Gaelic football, the distance from the penalty spot is a bit further out, so I tried to wait that extra split second to see what direction the ball was going. I got lucky that day. But you need that bit of luck in everything in life."

Paddy feels blessed to have been reared in Seville Place, Dublin 1. O'Connell Boys had a clubhouse.

"It had a gym, snooker, table tennis, a television, woodwork and all sorts of activities. We'd spend six days a week there. And when it was closed on Sundays, we didn't know what to do with ourselves."

His brother-in-law, Johnny Greene from Wicklow, took young Paddy to Croke Park.

"My hero was Paddy O'Flaherty. I thought he was a marvellous goalkeeper. He was a great athlete. And he had a terrific attitude. He's a lovely man."

Cullen was playing outfield for O'Connell Boys. They mostly played in the junior and intermediate grades. He was serving his time as an electrician at McNaughton's and Charlie Walker worked there. Charlie would later manage St Patrick's Athletic, and Paul McGrath, in the League of Ireland.

"Charlie was a fabulous character. He started a soccer team in McNaughton's. He put me in goal because I played Gaelic football. He called me Yashin after the great Russian 'keeper!"

Dublin were looking for a goalkeeper. Paddy's great friend, Jimmy Keaveney, put the word in. And so began the great adventure.

"Some people weren't impressed that I was coming in from a soccer background. A lot of the GAA lads were playing soccer as well. The ban was in force at the time. But nothing was done about it.

"It was a real lean time for Dublin. We were getting hammered by everybody. I remember once in Carrickmacross standing in a puddle in the middle of the goal-mouth and these lads behind the goal shouting 'did you get your fish and chips last night? You'll get good bacon and cabbage up here'. These are the little things that come back to you.

"We'd do a few laps of Parnell Park and then go in for a shower. We all thought that was training."

Everything changed with the arrival of Kevin Heffernan as manager.

"We owe it all to Kevin. He was an extraordinary man. He was a deep thinker about the game. And about life. Mickey Whelan was in the background with the drills he drew up for him and things like that.

"You didn't get to know Kevin very well, but I got on well with him. He liked when people gave him their honest opinion."

 

Paddy states that the All-Ireland victory of '74 was the most important one.

"It gave us the confidence. The taste of winning. Ok, we slipped up the following year, but we came back well after that."

The Dublin-Kerry matches lit up the 1970s.

"John Egan and [Mikey] Sheehy were pure class. Cork's Jimmy Barry Murphy also had such quality," he recalls.

"It was a remarkable period. Six All-Ireland finals in-a-row [1974-'79]. Won three [1974, '76, '77]. Lost three. The defeats hurt, but it was just such a wonderful time in our lives. And it went by so quickly.

"I had experienced so many barren years before. All I had won was an O'Byrne Cup (in 1966 when Dublin defeated Offaly 1-5 to 0-6 in the final) but I didn't mind. All I wanted to do was to play for Dublin."

He did so for 13 years.

"I thought that was good, and then along comes John O'Leary for 18 seasons. That's fantastic. And now there's Stephen Cluxton. He's phenomenal. And the way he can direct a ball to a player's chest, and that player is running at speed. Unbelievable."

Paddy wasn't too bad himself! Three All-Irelands (1974, '76, '77), six Leinsters (1974-79), two NFL (1976, 1978) and four All Stars (1974, 1976, 1977, 1979).

"I got the break. I'm grateful. Great days. And I enjoyed it all."

The 'keeper who stood in that puddle in Carrickmacross made quite a splash.

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