Finbarr Cullen Interview.

November 8, 2018

FORMER Offaly and Ireland footballer Finbarr Cullen feels that Offaly football is doomed unless the new underage structure is successful.

The Edenderry man whose career spanned seventeen years says he was gutted and embarrassed when suspended in 2006, but he forgives Dublin’s Paul Curran for his savage and unprovoked attack that scattered the Offaly man’s teeth across Parnell Park.

Cullen picked up a Leinster senior medal as Captain along with the O’Byrne Cup in 1997, Offaly’s first ever national league Title in 1998 with Offaly and four Senior Club Medals in the space of seven years.

In this in-depth interview with David Farrell, the Edenderry publican talks openly about his career, adding that he has fond memories, few regrets and holds no grudges against anyone.

Cullen openly answers the following questions:

What is wrong with Offaly football?

‘The underage structure in Offaly has to be addressed. A lot of young lads are not winning anything then when they reach senior grade, they don’t know what it means to win something, or more importantly, what it takes to win something. Offaly had different managers over the last nine to ten years, and that wouldn’t have helped as far as I’m concerned. Management skills were changed.

‘James Stewart is heavily involved in looking after underage football at the minute and he is putting serious work into that up to u.16’s. I can see that working. The talent is there and it’s just a matter of holding on to these younger players, keeping them on board and keeping them interested in Gaelic football. There is a major change at present, and if the new structures work I can see Offaly making the breakthrough in the not too distant future’.

What was the highlight on your senior career?

‘Winning the Leinster final in 1997 and captaining it, and winning my first championship with Edenderry in 1995. We had been knocking on the door for so long. We had lost three semi-finals in a row. Two to Ferbane and one to Clara’.

How long did you play senior football for?

‘Thirteen years inter-county for Offaly’.

How much hurling did you play and what were your highlights?

‘My first games of hurling were at u.12 with Boys National School under Sean Fitzgerald. The club won it’s first county title at u.14 ‘B’ in 1985 and I progressed onto a couple of county teams at u.16 and I made the minor team then in 1989. The hurling was a big part of my career then, up as far as minor. Then I made a conscious decision to concentrate on football because I was called into the senior squad. I had been called-in for the u.21 squads a couple of times, but stuck with the hurling then. I felt I was better at the football. The high point was getting to an all-Ireland final in 89. In the space of about three months we played Croke Park eight times between football and hurling. We won a Leinster and All-Ireland minor titles in 89. When I think of the quality of the hurlers I was playing with, Brian Whelehan, Hubert Rigney, the Johnny Dooley’s, John Troy, these guys went on to All-Stars and All-Ireland senior titles’.

What was it like when you were handed an All-Ireland jersey?

‘It was one of the biggest accolades you can get. I really enjoyed that. A lot of players were looking for an International outlet which wasn’t available that time. Colm O’Rourke was given the job the first year and myself and John Kenny made the panel in 1998. I had played with Leinster and with Leinster you are playing with other county players from the Province, but playing for Ireland you are playing with players that you would never otherwise be playing with, like Anthony Tohill, Moynihan, all these guys from different provinces. I took it very serious. We played in Dublin in 98, in Australia in 1999, and in Dublin in 2000. We won first two and lost the last one’.

At senior football who was the best opponent you came up against?

‘I played my early football at corner back so I would have come up against some really class corner forwards. Mickey Linden from Down and Tommy Dowd from Meath are the big two, and Peter Canavan as well. I would have to say Tommy Dowd, followed by Mickey Linden and Peter Canavan’.

Your best opponent at Club level?

‘Vinny Claffey. Great work rate and all round ability. He was a very physical player as well’.

What footballer and hurler did you admire the most when you were growing up?

‘Back in the early eighties Matt Connor was the bee’s knees. He would have been the main man. In hurling, Pat Delaney of Offaly. A centre back and a class player’.

What is your opinion of the current style and standard of today’s game?

‘It has changed even from the time I started back in the late eighties. Football was so honest and open and all about tackling. It’s all changed. It’s nearly defensive. There’s no such thing as orthodox wing forward or centre forward anymore, or a midfielder. You have the corner backs running for points, which I think is good for the game. It has changed with the times. It went through a stage where all the emphasis was on fitness rather than ability and that nearly came true on a couple of occasions with teams winning All-Ireland. I felt they were not as good as footballers as the opposition, but they won it through their work rate and fitness. It’s a change but we have got to move with the times. There is nothing I would restore to the game. Everything has moved to make the game quicker’.

What is your opinion of the current standard of refereeing?

‘They are very inconsistent at the minute. I know they are getting it hard to get new referees on board and I can understand why. It’s a difficult job’.

If you were a betting man who, including Edenderry, would you back to win the Offaly senior football championship?

‘It would be hard to look outside Rhode. They seem to have the stuff there at the minute. They seem to be well organised. They have very good players in very important positions. I can’t see them losing the title this year’.

Who do you fancy to win the All-Ireland football and hurling titles this year?

‘I think Dublin have a great chance this year, and Tyrone. I think it’s between them for the football. In the hurling I still believe Kilkenny will have enough in the tank but Tipperary will obviously push them all the way this year’.

Are you happy with your achievements as a player?

‘No, I’m very happy to have achieved what I did achieve, but I always felt that at club level, we could have won a lot more senior titles. We always seemed to do a year on, a year off. We needed a bit more belief and a little more bit more commitment. I know that the players were so good that we could have done four or five in a row’.

Who was the best player you ever played with at club level?

‘Easy, Peter Brady’.

Who was the best player at county level?

‘Probably Peter Brady again, because as a forward he was just out of this world. I’d say Peter followed closely by Vinny Claffey’.

Who was the most talented player you ever played with at club level?

‘Very good question. Tony Kenny had so much ability. He was a very flamboyant player. A player you’d enjoy playing with’.

Most talented at county level?

‘Probabaly Cathal Daly. He went on to win an All-Star’.

What was the best grounds you have played in?

‘Croke Park, and this may sound like a brag, but I played in the MCG stadium in Australia. It holds 90,000. We played before 78,000 there. We played under lights which was rare at the time for us. It was fantastic. It has to stand out’.

What led to the altercation with Paul Curran and have you spoken to Paul Curran since?

‘The incident happened in the second half of the match. I remember making a tackle on Paul Curran in the right corner back position. I was centre-back, he was centre-forward. He was only back from injury, in fact he wasn’t playing that well. He was having a bad day. I would like to think I was getting the better of him. He was dispossessed followed by a shoulder and he got quite frustrated. He was on his knees for a minute. The ball was cleared. I ran back to cover the square as the ball went up the far side of the field, as I did, and I’ll have to say it was first time in my life I was ever done, and he did me. I had me eyes focussed on the ball on the far side of the field, and he came in from behind and pulled at his living best. He knocked three of my front teeth out. It took me a minute to actually realise what had happened. It was the first time I was ever on the receiving end of something like that’.

Have you met him since or did he ever apologise?

‘Yes he apologised. About two weeks after the incident I got a phone call at home. My teeth were back in right, my mouth was all wired up, or plastered up to keep the teeth in place and I was sucking food through a straw. He phoned and apologised and made no excuse for it, he was just having a bad day. I accepted. He was man enough to ring-up and apologise. We played together the following year in the Railways Cup. I was picked at centre-back and he was picked as wing back. That was about six months later. We shook hands after a team meeting’.

Do you hold any grudges?

‘No way. Even after that incident people said I was too soft and I should have done this and done that and I should have gone to a solicitor. I’m not that way inclined. I was very angry at the time I’ll have to say that. I was out of football, and I was out of work. I would have missed more matches than he did. He was suspended for the incident, but because of the injuries I missed more matches. I missed the Erin Isle match with Edenderry in the Leinster club Championship and I missed two league games against Kerry and against somebody else as well’.

Who was your funniest in the dressing room at club and county level?

‘Tony Kenny at club level. One of the best characters you could have in the dressing room. These characters are so important to have someone like that in the dressing room. Someone to change the mood in the dressing room or a training session with a quick remark. At inter-county level I would have to say Phil O’Reilly. A very, very witty character, very, very funny’.

Any regrets at this stage?

‘Should I have played on a bit longer? After the Paul O’Kelly incident back there in 2003, I might have had another year, but injuries were catching up on me. I’d only be half fit. Yeah, I’d loved to have been able to play on longer. Then I broke a bone in my foot in my last year’.

What did you make of Tommy Lyons as Offaly manager?

‘Only for Tommy Lyons we wouldn’t have a Leinster title in ’97 or a National League title. He changed the whole ethos. He didn’t care who you were or what you were or what your reputation was. He came in with a clean slate. I like the way he tested our metal. The things he made lads do at training sessions?I know they are not doing it now. He just put us through hell. All he was doing was testing our metal to see who really wanted to play for Offaly. He had us training at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning in Edenderry, for lads like Claffey or the Ferbane lads having to travel an hour to train, then train for an hour and a half says it all. He did it his way’.

Who was the best club manager you played under?

‘John Courtney. For me he was class. A no nonsense man, an army man, a straight talker. He was so straight down the line. We had a lot of players only going through the motions and playing, maybe a little bit, on their reputations’.

Who was your toughest teammate?

‘Shane Connell, (laughs). In fairness to him, when he came on the scene first we had played a lot of rugby in training and very little Gaelic. He was raw, raw as far as his judging a ball, and his kicking and hand passing was a little bit wild. I remember the first game with him was a challenge match down in the field and the first ball he went up for he hit Peter Brady by mistake and burst him in the eye, and Peter had to go off. But he contributed to our victory in ’99 in a big way, you could say he was the difference between loosing ’98 and winning ’99’.

What was your feeling regarding your suspension in 2006?

‘I was gutted. I was embarrassed as well I’ll have to say. I had no idea of that rule. At club level we got it wrong. It led to our relegation and to our demise and I’m very conscious of that. I was very, very annoyed and very embarrassed. The way it was handled by the media and other clubs as well was a little bit messy. I remember going to the County Board and explaining our case, but the rules were there in black and white unfortunately, and unfortunately the club had made a mistake. I thought it was very harsh though. I think what’s wrong is that we don’t have enough lads working for us at County Board level, and on the various bodies. I was involved in getting the club relegated and now I’ll have to live with it’.

What are you doing with yourself since retiring?

‘Got me handicap down (laughs). Play a bit of golf and family life is so important. We have one son. I’ve got a very understanding wife. I got involved with Edenderry in 2007 with Greg Farrelly, We won the Intermediate. I enjoyed the coaching end. I love the coaching end, but not the management. Chasing lads to go and play football is not my scene. I never did it myself. I don’t believe you should have to chase lads to play football. I’m not into that. I wouldn’t have the patients for that. I’ll probably get back to the coaching some day. I’d really love to put something back into the club. They were very good to me over the years. They were always very, very supportive. I remember all they did for me, including running a benefit night for me when I went to Australia’.

Players in Edenderry with a promising future?

‘You have Mark Young, Derek Kelly, Stuart Cullen, Seanie Moore, Stephen Guing and Colin McCormack. They need more senior championship games and Div 1 football which they are going to have’.

Today Finbarr runs a very successful pub and nightclub at O’Connell Square, Edenderry.

Coincidently, it was also home to another Offaly ‘great’ Paddy McCormack for many years and the pub used by Offaly footballers back in 1960 when they won their first ever Leinster senior title. That team also included Finbarr’s father Tommy.