Growing up in San Francisco, all Danny Culloty wanted to do was wear the red of Cork
The call went through to Cork U21 manager Bob Honohan in March of 1983. There was a Yank above in Newmarket ruling the skies and what was to be lost in bringing him down to the Farm for a closer look.
Throughout the course of our two-hour chat in the Vintage Restaurant, Kanturk, Danny Culloty references five games in which his 6’2” frame rose well above the parapet. They stand as the five most important signposts in his journey.
In the spring of 1983, Culloty, lining out in the still somewhat unfamiliar Newmarket colours, turned in a decent hour’s shift during a junior league fixture away to Millstreet.
A call came through from Honohan early the next week and the 19-year old was invited to link up with the Cork U21 football squad. This, just four summers after he had received his first taste of competitive football with San Francisco club Shannon Rangers.
Well, competitive might be stretching it. No training and just six games a year against two different teams didn’t lend itself to much. Still, Culloty had to cut his teeth somewhere.
Heading down to Bishopstown for his first Cork session, he knew not a soul and knew also his technical ability was about to be terribly exposed. There was no problem in fielding possession, he’d soar into the clouds all day long if he was let. Where difficulty arose was when his two feet returned to the ground.
“I was like a deer in headlights at times,” he recalls. “I just didn’t know what do with the ball.
“More often than not, I would just kick it when I got in and it was likely to wind up anywhere.” The unknown Yank with the awkward solo technique started the 1983 Munster U21 semi-final against Waterford. A dead leg brought a premature end to his Cork debut and he was dropped for the Munster final against Kerry.
It didn’t matter. A first childhood dream had been realised. “I went back in with the Cork U21s in 1984. I got on with all of the lads by this stage. No doubt about it, my first day was tough back in ‘83. I knew nobody. Even if I went to school in Cork I might have known one or two of them. At the same time, I had no reservations because this is what I wanted to do.” The class of ‘84, again under the tutelage of Honohan, hammered Limerick in the Munster final, with Mayo overcome by 0-9 to 0-6 in the All-Ireland decider.
A first All-Ireland medal and a second childhood dream realised.
“I was still so green. The other lads would have played in structures, Niall Cahalane, John Cleary, Colm O’Neill, Mick Slocum, Teddy McCarthy and the rest. I was coming in from a junior set-up where there was no real training. Hard-work kept me going.
“Persistence too.” Persistence stemming from a childhood spent kicking an O’Neill’s ball around Golden Gate Park dreaming of pulling on the red and white shirt.
Danny Culloty was born to Dan and Anne Culloty on March 15, 1964. His father, who emigrated in the mid-50s, hailed from Kiskeam and while his mother was a San Fran local, her parents, John O’Leary and Johanna Buckley, were reared in Millstreet and Banteer respectively.
Danny played soccer, basketball and baseball while attending McAteer High School, his passion for Gaelic, however, outweighing his combined interest in the other three codes.
“My father would have been GAA-mad. He played when he came over and used to take myself and my brother Sean down to Golden Gate Park.
“There was no underage team over there so I had to wait until I was big enough and strong enough to start playing. I got involved as early as I could and I was 15 when I first togged out to play with Shannon Rangers.
“All my friends wanted to be professional players, I wanted to wear the red.
“There was no training over in San Fran, just a kick-around, maybe some backs and forwards. I wasn’t a natural by any means and Billy [Morgan] was a big help to me when I came back to Ireland. Billy coached me, made me comfortable on the ball.” Indeed, his first encounter with Morgan certainly wasn’t what he had envisaged, the then All-Ireland winning-captain throwing a young Danny Culloty out of his own bed.
Cork’s Danny Culloty races clear of Kerry’s Morgan Nix in the Munster Football Final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork, in 1990.
Dan Culloty was part of the Rebel Cork organisation in San Francisco and volunteered to house some of the Rebels’ biggest names when they arrived over for an All-Stars tour.
“The house was full with Cork stars,” he says, “then you would have friends of theirs calling over as well. Our house was like Grand Central Station.
“Rebel Cork was like a benevolent fund so when the All-Stars were coming over they would put out feelers to see would people be interested in taking players. When we were growing up there were people constantly over from Ireland staying in the house.
“My dream was to play back here in an All-Ireland so you can imagine how much having Billy, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Connie [Hartnett] in the house fed into that dream. I chatted away to them. They were sleeping in my bed sure, we were thrown out to the floor. They used to come outside playing basketball with us too.” In the summer of 1982, upon Danny completing his High School education, the Cullotys packed their bags and headed for Cork. His father opened up a butcher shop in Newmarket and so that is where the family settled.
“Newmarket were out of the junior championship by the time I arrived so I threw my lot in with the junior Bs. Playing junior B with Newmarket wasn’t much different from playing over in the States. It wasn’t exactly what I had envisaged.” His breakthrough arrived in 1983 and by the time he stepped out of the U21 grade at the end of ‘85, he had two Munster and All-Ireland medals in his back pocket. He also featured at midfield in Cork’s All-Ireland winning junior campaign of ’84.
“The junior team had plenty of lads who weren’t far off the senior set-up. Conor Counihan played on that team, so too did Mick McCarthy and Denis Mulcahy.
“John Fintan Daly was the junior manager. He actually took over Duhallow not long after that and we would become close friends.”
In 1986, still aged 21, Culloty was invited onto the Cork senior panel. There stood a long queue in front of him and he spent the entire campaign on the backbench.
Billy Morgan returned as manager in 1987 and the Yank earned his championship debut when sprung from the bench in the closing stages of the Munster final replay. Cork ended Kerry’s four-in-a-row bid and the five minutes Culloty spent inside the Killarney whitewash would be his last until September of 1989.
“The atmosphere was something else, just getting the call off the bench was special. I did well to get a run that afternoon because the squad was so strong.
“I didn’t get frustrated at not getting any game-time in 1988. I was determined to make it. I was focused. I knew I needed to improve. Billy was helping me all the time.
“I got on well with him. Billy was the boss, but he was also one of the lads. I don’t think we would have won what we did without him. He’d die for the players. He had the perfect mix of intelligence and passion. I got injured in 1989 which didn’t help in trying to break onto the starting team. I was out for six weeks after getting severely concussed when playing for Duhallow.
“We were playing Muskerry in the championship at Knocknagree. I jumped for a ball and some lad ran in underneath me and took the two legs out from underneath me. I woke up the following morning, sitting in a bed looking at my shorts and jersey which I’m still wearing and wondering ‘where the hell am I’. I was up in CUH.”
Culloty returned to the panel for the decider against Mayo and was introduced midway through the second-half. I got my run. I got my medal. That told me I was close.”
“Ironic isn’t it?” quips Culloty, that his breakthrough onto Morgan’s starting XV hinged largely on a game played on the turf where he first took a Gaelic football in his hand.
The All-Ireland champions travelled to New York in the spring of 1990 and after spending a couple of days in New York, headed out to San Francisco where they played an All-Star selection.
“I had a very good game out there. I made it from there.” His first full championship start arrived on May 27 at home to Limerick, his first championship score kicked on that same afternoon.
He’d add a second goal to the collection in the Munster final win over Kerry. And before he knew it he was making sure he had enough change to partake in the several card games that were played on the train up to Dublin on All-Ireland final weekend.
“I remember we came into the dressing room on the Tuesday before the final. A Meath selector had mentioned to a reporter that Cork had no bottle. Billy had that plastered around the dressing-room. That was major motivation for us. All week, though, there was this feeling among the squad that we were never going to lose it.
“Who wouldn’t be? As the parade passed the Hill there was a huge roar and the nerves just left me. I looked up at the sea of red and white and I said ‘let’s go’.
“I had an excellent relationship with Shea [Fahy]. He picked up Liam Hayes and I marked Gerry [McEntee]. I looked at Shea before the throw-in and without a word spoken, we said to each other we are going to win this midfield battle.
“With Kerry, it was pure football. With Meath, it was pure attrition. I was never as sore when I woke up on the Monday morning.
“Towards the end of the game, Liam Hayes caught a ball on our end-line. He got through two of us and then I pulled him down. I fouled him inches outside the square and was lucky not to concede a penalty. If he was a foot closer to the goal, I don’t think I’d have fouled him. It would have been too risky. Stephen O’Brien was roaring at me, ‘don’t foul, don’t foul’. I just wanted to stop the goal.” The final whistle sounded shortly after and this Yank had achieved what he spent his whole childhood dreaming of.
“There was a high. It was indescribable. I don’t think I came back down from that high until we got back to the Burlington. Everything that happened after the final whistle is a blur. I do remember meeting my father. He didn’t say much. He didn’t need to. I met John Daly in the Burlington and asked him when Duhallow were training next. That was the kind of focus I had. Maybe it was because I came into the game so late that I wanted to consume as much football as I could.” The tea in the pot has gone cold, the water jug empty and not a waitress in sight. One final reflection, then.
“It was one of the best chapters in my life. 1990 was special. Everything fell into place. It is nearly hard to believe. You wouldn’t expect it to happen to a young kid growing up in the States.
“It did, and I’d do it again if I got the chance.”
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