From trenches to benches for Bryan Cullen
All-Ireland winning skipper refuses to let diminished role dampen desire for more glory
BRYAN Cullen has taken quite a football journey in the past year – from Dublin general to henchman – but how he's dealt with it is the mark of the man.
Little kids and strangers still shout "See ya in Coppers!" at him, a bizarre reminder of that throwaway remark he made in 2011 when he became the first Dubliner in 16 years to lift Sam Maguire.
Having previously captained Dublin to All-Ireland glory at U-21 level and also DCU to Sigerson success, the Skerries star (also a gifted hurler) was always a natural frontman. But, over the space of a single season, he has had to reconcile himself to becoming merely a backing vocalist.
Married since January to the fastest Irishwoman in history – Cork sprinter Ailis McSweeney – and with a PhD in exercise physiology that sees him working full-time now for Leinster rugby, Cullen, more than most, knows about speed and the havoc it can wreak on a football pitch.
All the mileage, experience and immense natural football intelligence he possesses is no match for the sort of pace that this latest Dublin model has at its disposal. Yet even though he is only thrown the occasional starting role now, it doesn't make Cullen any less professional in his outlook.
Ask him about getting used to life on the bench and how he copes on big match-days and he replies: "I try not to just be another supporter.
"I try to analyse the game and I'd be talking to the guys around me about how the game is unfolding and even what messages can we give the guys at half-time, to help us progress.
"I keep an eye on where I might be coming in, potential opponents and that, and how we can do better in that area.
"We'd all love to play every game, but Jim (Gavin) can only pick 15 guys and then five guys to come in.
"All I can do is put my best foot forward and try hard in training and I feel I've been going reasonably well. I'd be the first to say the most important thing is that Dublin win regardless of who's on the pitch."
Apart from a back problem in 2010, Cullen has had a relatively injury-free career but, at 29, he appreciates more that his older body needs all the recovery it can get. He has given up golf because "it was too energy-sapping, walking around for four hours in between training sessions. You can only play in the summer and that's our busiest time".
From model captain then to model substitute and, this week in particular, it will be the experienced voice of players like Cullen who may prove invaluable to Gavin's young starlets.
Many of them have been involved in winning an All-Ireland U-21 title, but nothing can prepare you for the heat off the Hill on a September Sunday, as Cullen well knows.
"It is difficult to completely shut it out, the trick is to not let it affect you," he stresses. "You can always remember the cheers, but it's very easy to hear the groans as well. It's very hard to just listen to the good stuff and block out the bad stuff so you just need to remain focused on the job in hand.
"The most important part is the feedback you're getting from players around you and management, not what's going on in the stands."
For all of Dublin's youth, winning that All-Ireland in 2011 has, Cullen believes, benefited the whole panel hugely this summer.
"It's the confidence we've gained from winning games over the past couple of seasons. Also belief in our game plan and sticking regimentally to what we've been trained to do or instructed to do," he says.
"Leaking early goals (against Kerry) was not ideal but there was a hell of a lot of football to be played at that stage. You just have to remain confident that if things don't go for you early on there's a huge amount of time left and if you just keep plugging away, keep trying to implement what you've been working on, it will come good for you."
Cullen was still captain last summer – and replaced by Alan Brogan at half-time – when Dublin lost to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, so will that defeat be a factor on Sunday?
"If we were going into this game again under the same management and the same group of players, maybe there would be an element of what happened last year," Cullen says.
"But the fact that it's been freshened up with a whole new management team and a big influx of players certainly felt like a fresh start this year so we're not carrying any baggage from last year."