GAA Football

Gruelling commute from Budapest to Enniskillen works out for Fermanagh full-back Che Cullen

Che Cullen made a round-trip of over 3000 miles to line out for Fermanagh last season. Pic Seamus Loughran.
Andy Watters

GRAB boots. Grab gear. Out the door and head for the match in Enniskillen. Drive to airport. Through security. Wait. Board plane. Take off from Budapest. Watch movie. Read. Eat. Watch another movie. Sleep. Land in Dublin. Through security. Sleep. Wake. Grab boots. Grab gear. Out the door and head for the match in Enniskillen. Arrive. Play. Shower. Dress. Eat. Sleep. Begin return journey…

From Budapest to Enniskillen is just over 1500 miles as a Boeing 747 flies and that's the distance Che Cullen was travelling last season to turn out for Fermanagh.

It must be a GAA record.

The Software Engineer from Belnaleck has been based in the Hungarian capital (“It's a brilliant city,” he says) for the past year since transferring there from First Derivative's Newry base.

He'd declined the offer of a switch to New York a couple of years previously to continue his inter-county career as Fermanagh's increasingly effective full-back but had resigned himself to saying goodbye to the green number three jersey when, keen to sample a different culture and learn a new language, he accepted the transfer to Hungary.

However he hadn't factored in the persuasive powers and ain't-no-mountain-high-enough attitude of Fermanagh management duo Rory Gallagher and Ryan ‘Ricey' McMenamin.

Over the course of a few phone conversations they talked him into travelling back for games.

Phone call one: No.

Phone call two: Och, I don't know.

Phone call three: Alright then.

“Initially we decided that I wasn't going to fly home for Saturday games because the only flight home on a Friday night was at 9.40pm,” explained Cullen

“You wouldn't be getting into Dublin until 2am and you'd be wrecked.

“The plan was to bring me back for the four Sunday games initially in the League but it turned out to be five because we were going so well and they wanted to get me home more.

“I thought it would be a lot harder than it was. It was actually grand as long as I was getting enough sleep throughout the week.

“The plane journey does take a bit out of you but I didn't think the flight was a reason why I would have a bad performance. The flight on the way back to Hungary was a different story because you were getting back at 3am after playing a game and having to trek to the airport.

“I found coming back the toughest because you'd be wrecked in work for the next two days.”

Travelling wasn't as tiring as he'd anticipated but there was obviously no way Cullen could make it home for training sessions. He contacted Budapest GAA but they didn't get back to him. Either they have gone out of business or they aren't interested in a strapping inter-county full-back coming to play for them? The smart money is on the former explanation.

So Cullen had no choice other than to train on his own.

“The training was the tough part because you are never going to match the intensity of inter-county training,” he said.

“I was left to my own devices and I was given a running programme and I did a lot of gym work but I still had a lot of doubt going into the games.

“You don't really know how you are going to fare. It's in the back of your mind: Am I fit enough? Am I in the condition I was in last year? I don't really get nervous before games, even before the Ulster final 2018 I wasn't really nervous, but for the first game in the League (against Cork) I remember being quite nervous because I didn't really know how I'd get on.

“I hadn't touched a ball since Belnaleck had been put of the championship in October the previous year so that had me a bit apprehensive.”

The nerves only added to his sharpness in that first game. Cork managed 1-5 and Fermanagh emerged with a draw and there was another draw in the next game and then three wins on-the-trot, each made possible by a defensive cohesion that begrudged six, 10 and then nine points to Kildare, Donegal and then Clare. The run left Fermanagh well placed to gain promotion to Division One.

“We didn't talk about promotion to Division One but we knew it was definitely on the cards, especially after the wins against Kildare and Donegal,” said Cullen.

Fermanagh's challenge tailed off after losses to Armagh and, in their final fixtures, Meath. But, all-in-all progress had been made.

“We were disappointed about our performance in Armagh because I think that was really the crunch game and the team didn't perform well at all,” said Cullen.

“We were in the game at half-time but, and fair play to them, Armagh really put the squeeze on us in the second half and we didn't really have the answer.

“That left us too much work to do against Meath (in the final game). Our performance against Meath was very good – I know we lost by six points but we really went at it and if we had taken our scoring chances it might have been a different outcome. But it was ultimately very disappointing because promotion to Division One would have been absolutely huge. It would have brought the team on a lot but we can be happy with finishing third in Division Two.”

In last year's Championship Fermanagh were written off before they beat Armagh and dismissed before they beat Monaghan in the semi-final. Reaching the Ulster final was a statement of intent but the Ernemen couldn't match it in 2019 when Donegal (Ulster) and then Monaghan (Qualifiers) ended their summer.

“I had a decent season,” says Cullen, looking back.

“I found that in the first 15 minutes of games I used a lot of energy but I think it just took me longer to get into games. I played well in a few games and I helped the team with a promotion push and I thought I had good games against Michael Murphy and Conor McManus (for the second year in-a-row) in the Championship too.

“Unfortunately we didn't get the wins we would have liked but they were good teams, two Division One teams.”

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