Despite going undefeated in seven rounds of Allianz Division 1 and scoring 16 goals along the way, holes have been picked in Dublin’s style of football with critics pointing out the apparently strict uniformity of their defensive tactics.
But when asked if Dublin possess enough natural talent or did they play too much like drones, Cullen’s answer was crystal-clear.
“You do need that, definitely,” he agreed about the capacity to be spontaneous. “I think we do have it. Our most talented forwards have that in abundance — your Bernard Brogans, Diarmuid Connollys, Mossy Quinns — and that comes out naturally in them, I think.
“Guys like that maybe have to work a little bit harder on the more mundane stuff that maybe I find comes a bit more naturally to me, or Paul Flynn — the tackling and chasing.”
Cullen is likely to start on Sunday in the half-forward line where the attritional factor is extreme. He agrees few if any of those who start on the 45-metre line will finish the game due to the heavy workloads involved but he’s something he and his fellow half-forwards have reconciled with.
“Previously playing for Dublin lads might have been a little embarrassed to be taken off, but lads know that’s not the case now. When we take players off, it’s because they’ve emptied the tank for the cause.”
Cullen admits he raised the white flag himself against Armagh in last year’s qualifier. “After 60 minutes Paddy O’Donoghue, one of our selectors, went by and I said ‘get me out of here’.
“Even against Down here in the league match I got the message to the line.
“I did a lot of running that day, to be honest with you I chased everything and in hindsight I’d probably had a bit more sense chasing things I had a realistic chance of getting a hand on or getting a tackle in.
“But that day I just chased everything. I was exhausted after 40 minutes.”
After crippling back problems ruled him out of last year’s league, Cullen returned to play a key role in Dublin’s championship run.
He’s indebted to the Blues’ medical staff.
“Over the course of last year, they brought me from the stage where I was struggling to put my socks on in the morning to playing in an All-Ireland semi-final against Cork for 70 minutes.”
Cullen’s transformation led to him earning the nickname, Benjamin Button, after the Brad Pitt film which featured the actor as a man who grew younger in appearance with age.
Following the win over Down, Martin Clarke singled out Cullen for praise, saying Dublin had worked harder than any AFL team he had come across.
But the Skerries man dismisses such garlands. “I think that’s being generous. I’ve seen a lot of AFL, I’ve played against Australian Rules footballers, and those boys can get through a lot more work than I’ve ever done!”
At 27, the AFL opportunity has passed by Cullen. But it’s a good time to be a Dublin footballer right now.
“In previous years we’d look at our fixtures and we’d be looking at a couple of home games and confident of winning them and then you’d be maybe hopeful of nicking a win away from home but that just hasn’t been the case this year.
“Every game we are going into this year to we are expecting to win, there is great confidence there — we have the self-belief that no matter where we go, we’re capable of performing.”
As for Sunday, there’s no doubt he wants the victory but does he need it? Not at all. Dublin and Cork have bigger dates ahead.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we don’t want to win, of course ourselves and Cork want to go out and collect the cup. But at the same time it is not the biggest game we are going to play this year. We know that, Cork know that.
“Even if it doesn’t go our way the important thing is we learn a bit about ourselves, maybe learn a little bit more about Cork.
“See what works well against them, what doesn’t work well against them, so if we do meet them in the championship we’ll be in a better position to maybe avenge last year’s defeat.”