Josh Cullen impressed for Ireland on Wednesday night against Serbia.
Updated 16 hours ago
IT WAS A bittersweet night for Josh Cullen on Wednesday evening.
On his fifth cap, the 24-year-old midfielder was handed a first competitive start at international level by Stephen Kenny for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Serbia in Belgrade.
And while Ireland were beaten 3-2, Cullen was one of the young players to impress, with the manager giving him a vote of confidence by selecting him ahead of the more experienced Newcastle star Jeff Hendrick.
“When the manager told me I was starting, I was delighted,” he said. “To get a first competitive start for my country was a really proud moment for me and my family. From the moment he told me, I was excited and looking forward to the game.”
It has been quite a journey for Cullen to get to this point, with the 2020-21 season especially eventful.
Having played for West Ham since the age of nine when he went for a trial with the Hammers, the Essex-born footballer, whose grandparents hail from Leitrim, proceeded to spend 15 years at the London club.
The midfielder did make good progress coming through the ranks there, earning a spot on the bench in a Premier League fixture against Arsenal as far back as 2015.
Yet first-team opportunities remained limited, and he made just three Premier League appearances in the next five years, despite encouraging loan spells at Bradford, Bolton and Charlton.
Last October, he made the difficult decision to leave the club he had supported as a boy and join Belgian side Anderlecht, penning an emotional goodbye letter to coincide with his departure.
Since joining the Belgian First Division A side on a three-year deal, Cullen has thrived, featuring 19 times for the the club who are currently fifth, well behind runaway leaders Club Bruges, but only five points off Royal Antwerp in second.
And on Wednesday, Cullen was rewarded for his good form with a starting spot for Ireland’s biggest game since the Slovakia play-off last year.
“Any player needs to be playing games to improve and show what they can do and what they’re about,” he explained. “So to move to a massive club like Anderlecht and experience a different league and different style of football has been beneficial for me, I feel.
“But the most important thing for any player is to be playing games. I’ve been doing that at Anderlecht and I’ve felt in pretty good shape myself, so it’s been a good start there so far.”
Cullen’s inclusion was one of a number of instances of players being picked on form more so than reputation, with Dara O’Shea over Shane Duffy and Alan Browne ahead of Robbie Brady being two others.
Kenny also went with a new formation, 3-5-2, though the lack of time to prepare this new system was far from ideal, with Cullen only linking up with his colleagues on Monday, two days prior to the match.
“To be honest, there’s not a lot of work that we’ve been able to do on it,” he said.
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“It wasn’t weeks on the training pitch obviously. So a lot of information about the system and the way we wanted to go about the game was crammed into a couple of days of working together.
“But I felt the system worked well and we showed some progress. And we can take positives from the game. So not a lot of time, but another two to three days now to work together before Saturday [when Ireland host Luxembourg]and to keep trying to get better as a team.”
Asked to elaborate on the positives, Cullen said: “I think we restricted Serbia to only a few chances. They were very clinical to be fair to them. Some of our build-up play from the back was good and I think we were a threat.
“We got into good areas with [Alan] Browne on the turn and Robbie [Brady] when he came on. There were chances there for us and at times, we were good in possession.
“By no means are we getting carried away with the performance thinking that we’re there. But there are things we can analyse and say we did well. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of things we can look at and know there’s a lot to work on.”
And looking ahead to Saturday’s qualifier in Dublin, the midfielder acknowledged the team could scarcely afford to drop many more points following the defeat to the side widely tipped to challenge Ireland for second spot in the group.
“Of course, we have to now go and win. It makes it a very important game, we know that.
“There’s no international team that you can ever underestimate. The approach and mindset of the team I’m sure will be no different coming into the game [on Wednesday night compared with]the Luxembourg game on Saturday.”