“It was probably the best year I’ve had”- ‘The Rockstar’ Joe Cullen reflects on a much improved yet unique campaign last year whilst looking ahead to this weekend’s Masters and beyond
Narrowly losing out to Michael van Gerwen in a deciding set, deciding leg Ally Pally last 16 classic was a mere blemish across a tremendous year for Joe Cullen.
Cullen, if he hadn’t already, captivated the darting landscape with his truly remarkable showing in north London on a breathtaking evening between Christmas and New Year.
He threw a best-of-seven-sets record of NINETEEN 180s, coupled with a 97 average, to force the former world number one all the way. Despite being on the cusp of victory, it was the Green Machine who stormed back to punish a duo of match darts and secure his place in the next round.
It may have ended in despair, but that performance alone thrust the Bradford man into a limelight that was already threatening to shine brightly on the back of a unique 2020 campaign that saw him pick up a European Tour title, as well as a Pro Tour success in the inaugural PDC Winter Series.
Not only that, but Cullen finally rid the demons of a torrid record at the Palace to advance to meet MVG in that resulting barnstormer. In ten previous appearances since 2011, he’d never managed to progress beyond round two; so this year’s run in itself was a positive, never mind performing to a sublime standard up on that famous stage.
On reflection, ‘The Rockstar’ acknowledged his delight at securing his titles throughout a competitive field and his performance at the 2021 World Championship.
“It was probably the best year I’ve had, TV wise definitely. The big thing for me was that I didn’t want to have a good year on TV and not pick up any wins. Luckily I picked up two tournament wins, one on the big stage (European Tour 4) and one on the Pro Tour, which as you know is just as difficult to win. It was really pleasing to get a few titles under my belt to cement the tear, and obviously a half decent run at the Worlds as well.
Not only did Cullen break his Muswell Hill curse in December, but he also ticked an item off his darting bucket list in the form of Grand Slam participation, accessed through his European Tour success.
His title captures and performances are slowly beginning to catch the eye of the darting world slowly but surely, and he feels that his outing against MVG will have done him no harm whatsoever; despite the occasion still playing on his mind every now and then.
“The Grand Slam didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped, but I’ve played in it now so I’ll go again this year and I’ve no doubt I’ll be in it again.
“In regards to the Worlds, I think I had a steady draw to be fair. As I’ve said in previous interviews, with no disrespect to Wayne (Jones), he isn’t the force he once was, which was good for me, and I think that eased me in. I think the 3-0 win, as opposed to a 3-2 and just scraping over the line, it made me relax a but more.
“Then playing a good friend in Jonny (Clayton) was difficult but I managed to get through that one aswell, and it didn’t go my way in the last 16 against Michael (Van Gerwen), but I’m sure with how the game went my stock has risen maybe, just because of the nature of the game. It still hurts when I sit down and think about it now, but there were plenty of positives to take from it.”
Cullen continued to throw with purpose in that epic encounter with the Dutchman despite seeing a 3-1 lead evaporate, and although he missed two darts at the bull to seal a famous victory, the Yorkshireman came off the stage knowing he’d given every single ounce of effort; a reality that dawned in the deciding leg of the match when Van Gerwen took charge at the pivotal moment, and Cullen’s scoring faded having been understandably deflated by the chances that eluded him.
Still, it’s an outcome that Joe says he’s learnt from heading into what could be an even better year in 2021.
“I learnt from it to be honest, the last leg. 99% of the comments I saw on social media were positive, but you get the odd one. I’ve bottled games in the past, every professional has, whether they admit it or not. I didn’t bottle it, I probably tried too hard. I sort of thought to myself ‘he’s been on the stage for near enough two hours now, thrown everything at him, don’t blow it’.
“By putting that element of doubt in your mind, it makes you tense up a bit. Obviously Michael’s first three darts of that last leg were a 180, so you’re straight under it then. The interaction it got on social media, a couple of good things have happened to me since then, with additional sponsors and things like that, so there’s definitely plenty of positives.”
Mighty Mike has notoriously been one of the more predatory players in last leg deciders throughout the PDC over the last decade, but it wasn’t in ‘The Rockstar’s’ mind when the situation unfolded.
“There was only one place I’ve thought about that, and it didn’t affect me, I think it was one of the deciders on the Euro Tour, Michael had won 30 on the trot or something like that. Every time you’re in the practice room you’re thinking he’ll get the job done again. But no, I was comfortable with my game, I think that even if I would’ve started off with a ton just to put a treble in there, but I started off not great and he punished me, which is why he was world number one.
“It’s not so much a fear factor. I think if you let Michael play, don’t settle early enough, he’ll walk all over you, which he’s made a living off doing for the last five, six, seven years. But if you can match him early doors and put him under pressure, we’re all susceptible to pressure, then there’s no reason that he’s any different. I think a good start is key against Michael, whether it be leg or set play. If you give him any sort of lead then you’re fighting a losing battle.”
A month on from the drama of the Worlds and the first major tournament of the new year is on the horizon, as the Ladbrokes Masters begins on Friday (January 29) at the Marshall Arena, Milton Keynes.
The Masters has been revamped for the 2021 event, with 24 players in the field increased from the traditional 16. There is the potential not only to get the year off to a flyer, but to potentially work a way into the picture for the tenth and final Premier League spot, providing some added spice and incentive to the weekend’s proceedings.
“I don’t really watch the darts if I’m not in it, but I watched Gerwyn Price v Stephen Bunting semi final because I was aware that I needed Gerwyn to beat Stephen so I was in the Masters and to maintain my top 16 spot. I didn’t know it was going to go to 24 players, which was a shock to me, but it is what it is.
“Personally, I think the Masters should stay 16, the same as the snooker, but I can totally understand why they’ve enhanced it to 24 with the way things are. It’s more coverage, more players. It’s the same for us all, and I’m looking forward to Friday night.”
Under the old format, as 16th seed, Cullen was meant to open up his campaign against reigning World Champion Price, but will instead face ‘The Bullet’ Bunting in round one. He’s optimistic that he can initiate another deep run in a TV tournament to get his campaign off to a positive start, and believes he could well have an outside chance of sneaking into that Premier League spot if everything goes to plan.
“Its crossed my mind. I think in the past where I’ve maybe thought I’d half a chance, I’ve dwelled on it and not performed like I should. If I get in, amazing, I don’t when I will get in. Whether it be next year, the year after or the year after that, it doesn’t matter, I’ll get in.
“I’m not dwelling on it, and I think it will be interesting to see how people approach the Masters with that there, and whether the Premier League goes ahead as scheduled. If it doesn’t, then this discussion will be had about the UK Open, where if someone goes onto perform at the UK then they could possibly be in.
“I think everyone is a little bit in the dark, including probably the PDC who are picking them. They don’t know when things are going back to normal, so if I have a good run, hopefully I can’t be overlooked rather than will be overlooked. I have to make it so they can’t overlook me, and I’m excited about it.”
Cullen doesn’t feel there’s a specific round he needs to get to in order to firm his credentials for the spot, and recognises the unique identity of the Premier League and how a host of players could fit the bill.
“If you’re picking players at the Masters who are in with a chance, if I go one round further than than the other three or four players then I’ve done better than them so to speak, but that’s not how it works. I think the PDC look at the appeal that different players bring, and what they’d bring to the Premier League. This year has been different in the way that some players the PDC would’ve liked to have left out but can’t, whether it be something they’ve won or where they’re ranked, and I think the nine spots were nailed, whereas normally you see social media and there’s arguments for the last two or three spots.
“As long as you’re in with a chance of getting in, it can only be a good thing for players like myself, Chizzy (Dave Chisnall), like the other contenders that have been touted. It can only be a good thing that you’re still in the mix and not out of it.”
The return to Milton Keynes means the return to bubble life for all participating players at this weekend’s event, but Cullen has relished the chance to spend time with his family at home in Bradford over recent weeks whilst practicing hard in his newly constructed darts room.
However, he admits that life in the bubble isn’t as downbeat as many perceive.
“I’ve enjoyed the time off. It’s nice to have a bit of family time, as it was pretty full on towards the end of the year. Its been nice to unwind and not concentrate on the darts for a bit, but I’ve been back practicing for a couple of weeks and I can’t wait for the Masters.
“The money helps. You’ve got to be playing well for luxuries, which luckily I am. I think I’ve practiced well for the last couple of years, it was more the start of my career where I was a bit lazy, and sort of the middle part aswell. Of late, I’ve been pretty decent, and I think the results have shown.
“(The bubble) has been a bit of a masterstroke from the PDC putting things like a ping pong table, pool table and somewhere to unwind. We’re all obviously negatively tested, so I think it was a masterstroke. It was just nice to have some down time with people you get on with.
“To be honest, its been nice for me because we’re allowed one guest, who gets tested aswell, so the last few tournaments I’ve been taking my dad with me. He’s not really had that much opportunity to travel with me, so its been good that way for me to spend decent time with him.”
Cullen reacted to the news that the 2021 UK Open will also move to a temporary Milton Keynes home behind closed doors in early March, reminiscing on the classic Reebok Stadium venue that many fell in love with, and expressed his gratitude for the tournament to still be going ahead given the uncertain circumstances that the world is enduring in the current period.
“I loved the Reebok (now Macron Stadium), but it’s testament to the PDC and how they’ve grown the game. I loved it because it was my first ever TV tournament, the balcony was on the top and you could see exactly what was going on, whether people have won or lost, it was brilliant.
“The reality is, the tournament outgrew the venue. There was such demand for fans to be there, but I think Minehead is a great substitute and it has hosted some great tournaments, and it’ll be sad to see it Milton Keynes but we’re just thankful it’s going to be on.”
He is confident that he can continue his form into the new season, and stresses that winning games and going deep in every event without taking too much notice of the ranking system is the key to a healthy maintenance of performance.
“I just want to keep winning. There’s no feeling like winning. Whether it’s the Pro Tour, Euro Tour or hopefully if I manage to win a Major, I’ve just got to keep winning and keep progressing. People are obsessed with the rankings, like what they are defending from two years ago, even on the one year ranking. It’s just not healthy to have that outlook I don’t think.
“If you’re doing well in the TV events, getting to the latter end of tournaments, winning tournaments, then the rankings will take care of themselves. Hopefully I have a good start to the year, start well on TV and rocket up the rankings.”
Aside from the oche and spending time with family, Cullen is an avid Manchester United and Wigan Warriors rugby league supporter. He rounded off by discussing some ambitious feint hopes of his side potentially winning the 2020/21 Premier League title.
“It would be good wouldn’t it! My son is 12, the first five years of his life where United were half decent he didn’t see, so he looks at it now and he’s getting excited. The season is so strange with no fans, I think if anything happens to Bruno (Fernandes) we’ll struggle if I’m honest. If he carries on and we carry on doing what we’re doing then there’s no reason why we can’t to be honest.
“It might be a similar season to Leicester (in 2016), nobody really thought Leicester were going to win the title, that they’d tail off, that their form would drop. But the closer they got, everyone realised they were going to win it. Hopefully that happens this year with United, but I think City are the team to beat.”
Joe gets his Ladbrokes Masters campaign underway on Friday 29 January, with live coverage of Friday’s first round LIVE on ITV 4 from 1900 GMT.