In 2005 Warrington were hit by injuries to key players such as talisman Lee Briers. So, their coach Paul Cullen turned to the owner of the club to try and resolve the situation and fire the wire into the play-offs. Days later Andrew Johns – the best player on the planet – was brought to the Halliwell Jones before producing a masterclass against Champions Leeds.
Paul Cullen’s story is well and truly a Warrington story. He was born in the town in 1963 and lived and breathed the club. In 1980, the opportunity he had waited his whole life for arrived as Warrington snapped him up from amateur club Crossfields.
The Warrington-born centre, who could also play stand-off and loose-forward, soon became a hero to the Warrington faithful – he was one of them after all. He became known as ‘psycho’ due to his aggressive defence. That paired with his attacking flair made him a fantastic player to watch.
He lived the dreams of every kid in the area with aspirations of becoming a professional rugby player making over 300 appearances for his hometown club, as well as representing Lancashire.
Cullen even won a couple of trophies as he and others desperately sought to bring the success a club like Warrington deserves. He helped the Wire to the Lancashire Cup in 1982 as well as the Regal Trophy in 1991. However, the losses outweighed the victories for Warrington as their wait to become a real powerhouse went on and on.
He retired a one-club man on the dawn of Super League which promised much for the soon to be renamed Warrington Wolves, but their first few years in the rebranded competition saw the Wire labelled pretenders rather than contenders. He cut his teeth as a coach working with the Warrington academy before moving away to earn his stripes at Whitehaven.
Then, like a returning hero, he found himself in charge of his boyhood club in 2002. He saved Warrington from relegation and got them heading in the right direction in the following years as they began to sniff around the play-off picture.
The year 2005 would prove to be a watershed year for the Wolves. After three years, Cullen needed to deliver success and the sleeping giants of Super League needed to awaken. With a wealth of quality in the squad results on the pitch simply had to come.
And they did as the Wire battled in and around the top four but as the season drew to a close disaster hit as the Wolves were struggling for fit halfbacks of real quality. It was possible for the likes of Lee Briers and Nathan Wood to play but it was only a matter of time before their niggles became serious problems. With the play-offs just weeks away losing their halves for the long-term was something they couldn’t allow to happen.
However, with two weeks to go before the finals, a loss of momentum would also be disastrous. So, in desperation, wanting the best for his boyhood club and the fans who loyally supported him as a player and a coach, he turned to owner Simon Moran who promised to fix the issue.
And fix it he did by bringing in world-renowned Andrew Johns. The NRL Champion and State of Origin winner was regarded as the world’s best and was a Clive Churchill Medallist and an Australian international. He arrived just in time for a seismic clash against Champions Leeds – one of the sides they would have to be able to beat if they were going to stand any chance in the play-offs.
With a carefully managed line-up that allowed Nathan Wood to make his farewell appearance, whilst giving a Super League debut to the world’s finest in Johns, Warrington blew away the Champions with a sublime 33-16 triumph at the Halliwell Jones.
That set them up for a fourth-placed finish and a real crack at Super League glory in the play-offs. But it wasn’t to be as they crashed out in week one, losing 40-6 at home to Hull FC. Johns then returned to Newcastle and although there was a sense of a chance missed to make history, it was a period the Wire faithful will never forget and was in a large part due to ambition of the club’s coaching staff at the time.
Cullen continued to promise success and the owner continued to invest well as Warrington tried again to break up Super League’s dominant sides. The year 2006 saw them slip down to sixth but get a step closer to Old Trafford in the play-offs only for Bradford to end their dreams. Things got worse in 2007 as they missed out on the play-offs by a single point despite more big-money signings such as Adrian Morley.
Going into 2008, another off-season of big recruits again left Wolves fans excited and believing Cullen could be the man to bring success. However, an atrocious start to the season saw him resign in May following huge pressure from fans and pundits alike. It was a sad end for Cullen who had failed to deliver the success he so badly craved for his six years at the helm.
Less than a year later he returned to coaching taking over at Widnes with the goal of turning them into a Super League club. He guided them to back-to-back Northern Rail Finals before handing the reigns to Denis Betts to become Director of Rugby, a role he would keep until 2012 having fulfilled his ambition of taking the Vikings back to the big time.
Cullen now works for the RFL as part of the match review panel dealing with disciplinary issues. Once upon a time he was a regular on Sky Sports, both as part of the matchday commentary team and on the weekly magazine show Boots ‘N’ All, however he hasn’t been seen on the channel for some time now. He did feature on the Sky Sports website in July last year as part of a feature to relive the famous day he gave Andrew Johns his Super League debut. Cullen said that re-watching it brought a tear to his eye, something many Wire fans there that day can probably relate to.
Though Cullen didn’t bring the trophies to the Halliwell Jones, he certainly helped to provide some of the club’s greatest memories of modern times, including arguably Super League’s most unforgettable moment of the noughties, something you have to pay him huge credit for, wherever he may be these days.