By Katrina Brennan
LEE Cullen last played for Fermanagh against Meath in the 2019 league campaign but you could hardly tell the Belnaleck man hasn’t played at this level for almost four years.
Cullen returned from Australia in December and started at full back against Down at the weekend. He picked up their danger man Pat Havern and kept him to one point from play. It was the perfect return, albeit he finished with a badly bruised and bloodied nose, after a clash with Ryan McEvoy before half time that needed some treatment.
The big Belnaleck man emerged in the second half though and was a real linchpin in the Fermanagh rearguard, especially in the absence of his twin brother Che who suffered a hamstring injury against Longford.
Coming home was always on the agenda for Cullen who got engaged to his fiancé Grainne McLaughlin last year, with a wedding planned for April next year. In his words, there’s that ‘element of settling down’ and also the realisation that the opportunity to play county football won’t last forever;
“It’s in the back of your head that you want to give it one more crack with the football,” he said.
But the 29 year-old admits that even though he kept himself in shape in Australia by going to the gym, playing Gaelic and doing some martial arts, he wondered how he would fair out on the county football scene on his return;
“There was that level of doubt when you’re coming back; am I still able for this? So yesterday (Sunday) was quite massive in terms of answering that question. Yes, I can still perform at that level.
“I feel like I’m in a good place and looking forward to the next few games. Hopefully I can keep a starting spot, particularly in the backs because there’s not a lad that has put a foot wrong, even the lads on the bench, the backs there are in with a shout as well. The competition is very tight.”
Cullen is living in Leitrim village and works remotely as a data engineer for a London firm and he says less travel time to training is having a positive impact;
“I’ve got a better balance with it all this time around because I’m not living in Dublin. I’m living within an hour of Lissan, so the toil of going up and down the road isn’t as much, so I feel like my body is in better condition. I’m probably more aware of what my body is capable off too, so when you bring that level of consciousness to it, you know when to hold back and you know when to push, so I’m in a good place at the moment.”
Bloodied and bruised, Cullen emerged after 75 plus minutes and he couldn’t hide his delight as Fermanagh came out on the right side of a one-point win.
“There’s not many games you be part of like that, especially with the bloody nose. It was just a very eventful game, massive character shown and it’s great to get the two points because that’s a really up-and -coming Down side and we stood the test there. Brilliant,” he exclaimed.
“We’re not going to get carried away with ourselves, it’s the third round of the league, there’s a longer year to come. We’re probably only about half way through, it obviously feels good but we’re not going to get carried away with ourselves.”
Antrim will undoubtedly be looking at how Down broke through and hit the Ernemen for three goals and this is something Cullen and co. will be determined to tighten up on this Saturday;
“If you saw that on paper before the game you’d probably be thinking we’re going to lose the game, but that’s something we can work on in training. We haven’t leaked that many goals in the McKenna Cup and before that (in the league) but it’s definitely something to assess before the next game.”