The happiest of returns for Cullen the Cumbrian hero

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The Independent Online

Those with any doubts about the relevance of the Challenge Cup to the modern game should visit Whitehaven today to see the transforming power it can still exert on a club. When the West Cumbrians entertain Warrington this afternoon, the Recreation Ground will be full, television cameras will be there for the first time in decades and hundreds of people will be wining and dining in marquees.

Those with any doubts about the relevance of the Challenge Cup to the modern game should visit Whitehaven today to see the transforming power it can still exert on a club. When the West Cumbrians entertain Warrington this afternoon, the Recreation Ground will be full, television cameras will be there for the first time in decades and hundreds of people will be wining and dining in marquees.

It is a far cry from the fourth round when the supporters' coach heading for East Hull broke down and the fans were squeezed on board the team bus. Apart from the fact that a Super League club is in town, the extra magic in this quarter-final comes from the Paul Cullen connection. However hard the Warrington coach has tried to remove himself from the equation, he remains a hero in Whitehaven, credited with turning the club around during his time in charge.

"It was a club that was supposed to be going nowhere and Paul put it on a much more professional footing, on and off the pitch," says the Whitehaven chairman, Barry Richardson. "He is a hero in this town."

Whitehaven lost Cullen in the way they always feared, to his hometown club, Warrington. "The question then was how do you follow Paul," says Richardson. "All the supporters were behind him because of what he'd achieved, but I have to say that Steve McCormack has taken the playing side to another level."

The former Salford coach was Whitehaven's choice as Cullen's successor, from a list of candidates made stronger by the club's new credibility. "They are different in their methods, but the end result is pretty much the same," says Richardson by way of comparison. "They have a similar philosophy and they are both very well organised. Steve's a bit of a quieter personality, but his commitment is fantastic. We have a place for him to stay up here, but he prefers to get home and see his kids, so he racks up the mileage coming up five or six times a week."

McCormack had the chance to go to St Helens as Ian Millward's assistant this season. Instead, he has a agreed a new contract that will keep him at Whitehaven until the end of next year. If they stick together, he and the club stand to reap the benefit of the much higher profile in their community that events like this can bring. The £30,000 they could earn today is roughly a third of their annual income and long-term sponsorts have come out of the woodwork, suddenly eager to be involved.

And, in a symbolic moment this afternoon, Whitehaven will announce the signings of two local 16-year-olds who would previously have been picked off by the predators to the south.

On all sorts of levels, the Cup is doing the club a huge amount of good. "And we think we've got a chance of causing an upset," says Richardson. Whether that is a realistic hope or not, Whitehaven are already winners.

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