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Winning Sam with the Dubs, the key subs in All-Ireland titles and starting out in triathlons

Bryan Cullen on recent GAA success and a new sporting pursuit.

Bryan Cullen Bryan Cullen before Dublin's game with Carlow this year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN BRYAN CULLEN grasped Sam Maguire at last in September in 2011 and hoisted it into the air, he didn’t know what era he had kick-started.

Then a sense of relief washed over the Dublin football camp as 16 years of frustration had been brought to a halt.

That slender win over Kerry proved the launchpad for a golden spell of Dublin football that shows no sign of ending in the wake of the latest triumph last Sunday when victory against Mayo brought the fifth All-Ireland senior crown in seven years for the county.

Bryan Cullen raises the Sam Maguire Bryan Cullen lifts Sam Maguire as a player in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Cullen was involved in the 2013 All-Ireland final win as a player before opting in January 2015 to hang up his boots. Twelve months later he was installed as the county’s high performance manager and has been at the coalface for the last two All-Ireland victories.

He saw enough tough days as a player to appreciate the glow of the latest success.

“It’s a special time in Dublin GAA. Myself and a number of team-mates soldiered for years and the thought of winning one drove us on. We’re fortunate to have an exceptional manager and group of players.

Dublin celebrate after the game Dublin players celebrate their victory last Sunday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I hope everyone is enjoying it because these things are cyclical so it’s important to enjoy them now. It’s funny you start off your life as a Dublin fan, I was a huge fan as a kid. I was fortunate enough to play for Dublin and ultimately you go back to being a Dublin fan.

“Even though I am involved in the background, I still get huge satisfaction in seeing Dublin win. To have an input into the player’s physical prep, I get to see them up close realise their ambitions and their potential. There’s huge job satisfaction in that for me.”

Dublin’s All-Ireland deciders have tended to be absorbing affairs, tension hanging over Croke Park amidst chaotic finales. Last Sunday was no exception to that pattern but Dublin have tended to get the job done, four out of their five recent final wins secured by a wafer-thin one-point margin.

That has been largely attributed to the game changers they spring from the bench. Last Sunday Kevin McManamon and Diarmuid Connolly offered persuasive evidence of that with their contributions.

Diarmuid Connolly after the game Diarmuid Connolly celebrates after the game. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

On match day, Cullen tries to distance himself emotionally from watching a Dublin team and focus on his main task of monitoring Dublin’s replacements. There was only eight minutes elapsed last Sunday when one of them was ushered into action, Paul Flynn entering the fray after the luckless Jack McCaffrey damaged his knee.

“I try not to get too involved in the game,” says Cullen.

“When the game is on, your responsibility is to get the subs in the right frame of mind, keep them warmed up and making sure if a guy goes down with a black card or injury, guys are there in position and ready to go.

“I try to stay focused on that as it’s my primary role. I’m not there to watch the game. It’s a difficult thing to do coming on as a substitute in Croke Park.

“I say that from experience, it can be tough to get up to the pitch of it. The guys involved managed to by and large make an impact. It’s something that’s well documented, it has made a difference not just this year but over the last couple of years.”

Bryan Cullen Bryan Cullen with the Dublin players during the O'Byrne Cup last January. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Dublin’s All-Ireland preparations and celebrations have commanded plenty of Cullen’s attention of late but off the pitch life has been hectic as well.

He and his wife Ailis welcomed a new arrival with their daughter Keavy born in early September. He’s been getting used to fatherhood with their first child and also busying himself for a new sporting pursuit in the coming weeks.

Cullen has kept playing club football with Skerries Harps in the wake of inter-county retirement but was keen to try out something else and triathlons are his latest venture.

He has teamed up with GLS and Triathlon Ireland, getting set to sample the shorter events coming up in Killashee House and Youghal before the end of this month.

“Endurance was a quality I always had as a footballer. I was good getting around the park. I just enjoy being physically active. That’s something you do miss when you come away from the county team.

“I felt I was in the shape of my life when I was with Dublin but it’s four years since I started a game with Dublin now. So that gradually starts to slip away. This is just my way of trying to keep on top of it.

“My schedule with Dublin very much overlaps with the club scene. I’m still playing most of the games, my ability to make training sessions midweek is difficult sometimes.

“I’d been looking for an avenue to keep myself fit and active. So getting involved in Triathlon Ireland allowed me to do my own training in my own time and take control of it.”

Bryan Cullen Bryan Cullen before Dublin's game with Monaghan last year. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He’s juggled things around to fit in training, cycling to Dublin sessions in recent weeks and pounding the pitch himself when players are in a team meetings.

The swimming has been a challenge the All-Ireland winning captain has had to embrace.

“Growing up in Skerries now, my idea of swimming would have been jumping in on off the harbour,” laughs Cullen.

“While I can swim, the aspect of competitive swimming was something I got a bit of a shock about to be honest. Swimming every day growing up as a young fella, there’s a huge difference between that and competitive swimming.

“I still have a lot of work to do on it to be honest. It’s definitely my weakest aspect. It’s not that I find swimming exhausting but it is very technical that you don’t realise looking at someone doing it.

“Getting the breathing technique is part of it. It’s a big investment of your time as you go back to basics.”

It’s a shift as well focusing on individual competition after a life spent in dressing-rooms and pitches as part of football teams.

His wife Ailis has competed for Ireland as a sprinter so he’s had an insight into the mindset of an elite individual athlete.

“It is a completely different dynamic,” admits Cullen.

“The challenge in an individual sport, I was always thought this watching Ailis, it was always something I really admired about her is that doing the training as the onus was on her.

Ailis McSweeney and Derval O'Rourke Ailis McSweeney and Derval O'Rourke at the 2011 European Athletics Indoor Championships. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“For individual sports, no one’s going to make you train, no one’s going to pick up the phone and get on to you. That requires a certain type of character to do that. When you’re involved in a team sport, your manager or your team-mates are going to come down on you.

“There’s a group there to push you on but when on you’re own, you have to be more driven.”

He’s spent the past few months watching a driven group at the top of their game continuing to strive for new heights.

Dublin’s victory last Sunday offered confirmation of their greatness and Cullen is in no doubt that this current bunch have penned their chapter in GAA history.

“I think they’ve definitely etched their names into the history books. When the years roll by and they look back at this time, they’ll definitely be looking back with fond memories.

Dublin celebrate after the game Another day of glory for Dublin football. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“It’s funny in 2011 it was massive to win one but when you get over the line, it gives the team and individuals huge confidence. You want more and the more you back yourself to come through tight situations.

“It’s difficult to put your finger on what sets these guys apart. I think they definitely back themselves to win games. No matter what is thrown at them, they’ve come through a lot together as a group. They’ll back themselves to deal with whatever is put in front of them and come through.”


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