Anderlecht’s Josh Cullen spreads play by moving beyond English game

Ireland midfielder has expanded his horizons, and advises others to follow his example

This Josh Cullen interview reads like an advertisement to expand one's football horizons beyond the clogged up Premier League.

Cullen will miss out on Champions League football in his second season at Anderlecht but he came a lot closer than any other Republic of Ireland midfielder. Club Brugge as champions march straight into the big house with runners-up Genk landing a slot in the final qualifying round. The 25-year-old's new club finished third, so he will sample some Europa Cup action instead.

"I'd definitely advise players to do it," said Cullen ahead of tomorrow's friendly against Andorra.

“Think outside the box. For me personally, I’ve loved the season at Anderlecht, I’ve really enjoyed my time there, found it easy to adapt.”

Or as Ralph Fiennes told Brendan Gleeson in the film about Belgium, "It is like a f***ing fairytale".

“I’ve to say thank you to the people at the club who’ve helped me settle,” he continued. “I’ve enjoyed my time on the pitch. It’s been brilliant for me.”

The mystery is why there is not a flood of Irish players moving to European leagues in the wake of Brexit and the general struggles most of Stephen Kenny's squad face when it comes to commanding regular first team action in England (granted, a smattering of Irish under-21s are playing in Spain and Germany).

“I don’t know to be honest, sometimes we can get a bit too focused on the UK leagues and people don’t look further afield.

“I don’t know the answer why more people don’t do it, but whether the opportunities aren’t there, I’m not sure.

“But once the opportunity came calling for me from a club the size of Anderlecht with the history it has, the tradition and the ambition moving forward, and the prospect of being able to compete in top international competitions in the future, I think it was a no-brainer.

“I would never discourage any other young Irish players to look further afield and go and experience a different culture and really look to develop their game in a different league as well.”

Having Vincent Kompany as a rookie manager also sounds like a welcome development.

“My girlfriend came with me, which obviously made it easier off the pitch to have people there to support me, so a massive thank you to her, because especially with the way the world is at the minute with Covid, travel wasn’t easy.”

It only took Cullen (who hails from the sea side resort of Westcliff in Essex but is from Leitrim grandparents) 15 seasons at West Ham United before he took the plunge.

Style

Turns out Belgian club football is basically the same as playing in the top flight in England.

“I supposed in England and Ireland, people sort of think European football is tippy tappy and quite slow paced. It’s definitely not that. We’ve come up against teams that play all styles of football, as you would in the English league.

“It’s quite similar in that sense. Obviously, being at one of top clubs in Belgium, we’ve come up against a lot of teams that have sat back, defended in a low block against us. That’s been one of the main differences, personally, that’s jumped out of me. It’s still football and you still come up against all types of teams and all types of style of play.”