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Sunday 17 December 2017

Bryan Cullen: Most of us end up on the bench

Former skipper has no regrets now as he contemplates life after Dublin football

Bryan Cullen
Bryan Cullen
Bryan Cullen

LESS than six weeks into his life as a 'retired Dub', Bryan Cullen sounds totally adjusted to his new status.

In a perfect world, he reflects, you'd bow out at the summit, freshly minted Celtic Cross in your back pocket.

In the real world, he clarifies, inter-county footballers usually finish up on the bench. He should know; he's been that soldier.

And that was one of the reasons why the man who skippered Dublin to their first All-Ireland SFC title in 16 years - back in 2011 - felt that last month was the right time to walk away.

Cullen turns 31 in April - ergo, he is not too old or too slow or too banjaxed by old war wounds to survive in the inter-county jungle.

But he is from Dublin, where the competition is more intense than in any other county. So, for arguably the first time in his career since bursting onto the senior team as a teenager, Cullen found it increasingly difficult to see game-time during the first two years under Jim Gavin.

That partly explains why he didn't sign up for a third year. But it's not the only reason, he stresses.

"Very difficult" is how he sums up his decision. "Probably a lot of toing and froing, mentally. But personally I think it was the right call. And looking back now, I'm happy with my decision."

Cullen was speaking in Croke Park, where he was unveiled yesterday as an ambassador for EirGrid in its new sponsorship of the U21 All-Ireland football championship. His last day as a Dublin senior footballer was that ill-fated semi-final against Donegal at the end of last August; he didn't see a minute of action. Nor did he for the previous two outings against Meath or Monaghan, following cameo appearances against Laois and Wexford in June.

Still, given that his dreams of a third All-Ireland senior medal were obliterated by Donegal, was he not tempted to come back for one last hurrah?

"Em, in an ideal world everyone wants to go out on a high. But in reality, it doesn't really happen for most athletes. Most footballers, generally, finish up on the bench. That's what happened me," he reminds.

"But I had a fabulous 10-12 years playing for Dublin. Lucky enough to be walking away with a bunch of provincial medals, national league titles and All-Ireland medals.

"Again, I felt I wasn't chasing any titles towards the end of my career, I was happy with what I had achieved, and I suppose that made my decision a little bit easier."

The fact that he had fallen down the pecking order "wasn't the sole reason I decided to walk away. Absolutely, it was a contributing factor in my decision. I suppose, had I been more involved, it definitely would have been harder to walk away.

"But I suppose the way things had gone for me in the last two years, also getting a little bit busier in work as well, I just felt it was the right thing for me to do."

ENJOYMENT

He continues: "The enjoyment I got out of it was always playing football. I had a fairly reduced role under Jim over the last couple of years and I haven't got to play much football.

"And when you're 30, looking ahead to another three-four years playing the game, you want to play as much football as you can. And for me, if that meant stepping down a level to do so, then that's what I was willing to do."

Cullen's day job is as a strength and conditioning coach with the Leinster rugby academy. His involvement with the Leinster 'A' team, not to mention his club football commitments with Skerries Harps, mean that he hasn't completely walked away from the dressing-room 'bubble'.

As someone who managed to juggle elite football and work and marriage while completing a PhD, Cullen is well qualified to assess the merits of Joe Brolly's depiction of inter-county players as "indentured slaves".

"It does take up a hell of a lot of time but players want to do it," he maintains. "Players understand that an All-Ireland medal is a very difficult thing to win and you do have to invest a lot of your time into getting yourself in good shape.

"Players are obviously willing to do it. Maybe the language was a little bit strong but I understand what he (Brolly) means. You do have to give up an awful lot but, at the same time, it is for a short period of time in your life."

Dublin's one-time teenage prodigy concludes: "It'd be great to be 19 forever and play away and have no concerns. There's a lot more going on in my life now compared to when I was 20-21, even into my mid-20s.

"I'm very lucky with what I've got. I looked at Mikey there (fellow EirGrid ambassador Michael Meehan). Myself and him are the same age. The poor fella is riddled with injury; he hasn't got to play near amount the football that he would have liked. I've been the opposite, I've been very fortunate, so I can't have too many complaints."

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