After a summer of doom and gloom concerning the lack of Irish players in the Premier League, the emergence of Josh Cullen at West Ham United represents one of the few positive news stories. Cullen has already made four first team appearances this season, including a Premier League debut in last weekend’s victory at Anfield. The diminutive midfielder is developing a reputation as a skilful No. 10 and in time he may provide the Irish midfield with some much-needed creative nous.
Academy player of the year
Cullen was born in Southend-on-Sea in April 1996 and has come through the West Ham Academy. The young midfielder made 43 appearances for the Hammers’ U18 team over the course of two seasons from 2012 – 14. His performances during the 2013/14 season earned him the Dylan Tombides Award as the outstanding player in West Ham’s Academy. This form was rewarded in July 2014 with an appearance for the first team in a pre-season friendly against Stevenage. He then went on to spend most of last season in West Ham’s U21 team and received plaudits for a well-taken goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Cullen captained the West Ham U21s on occasion last season and his prominent performances led to him being included in the Hammers’ matchday squads for Premier League fixtures against Arsenal and Aston Villa in the latter part of the season. With Slaven Bilić taking over as manager at Upton Park during the summer and a clutch of impressive new signings one would have expected Cullen to remain in the U21 team or be sent out on loan. He has however continued his impressive career trajectory with a first team debut against Lusitanos in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. He then started the second leg against the same opposition and made a further start in the third qualifying round second leg away to FC Astra Giurgiu.
Premier League debut
Cullen’s introduction as an injury-time substitute against Liverpool last Saturday coincided with a first win for West Ham at Anfield since 1963. West Ham’s start to the season has been Jekyll and Hyde with their two away wins against Arsenal and Liverpool in stark contrast to the home defeats against Leicester and Bournemouth. However from Cullen’s perspective it is hugely encouraging that Slaven Bilić continues to include him in the matchday squads. The former Croatian international has already shown that he’s willing to throw a young player into the team as demonstrated by the inclusion of 16-year old Reece Oxford in a holding midfield role against Arsenal on the opening day of the season. This level of trust in the young players augers well for Cullen as he looks to establish himself in the first team. Earlier this week he signed a new three-year contract for West Ham so his club future looks bright.
Switch to Ireland
The 19-year old Cullen is also set to earn further recognition at international level. Having played for the England U16 team in 2011, Cullen later switched his allegiance to Republic of Ireland and made his debut for the Boys in Green in an U19 international against Holland in September 2014. He won three U19 caps and this week was called up to Noel King’s U21 squad for the upcoming fixtures against Qatar and Andorra.
It is noteworthy that Cullen is just one of a group of young, technically-gifted midfielders that qualify to play for Ireland through the grandparent rule. The likes of Jack Grealish, Daniel Crowley and Connor Ronan fit into the same category. Whilst the lure of becoming an England international may persist it is hoped that the Irish U21 set-up will provide an appropriate stepping-stone to expedite Cullen’s introduction to Martin O’Neill’s senior squad. There is certainly a need for an infusion of young talent in the Irish squad and if the young West Ham man continues with his current rate of progress it won’t be long until Irish fans are clamouring for his inclusion.
- Author: Alan Hannify