Josh Cullen’s road less travelled finds him at the heart of Ireland’s midfield

Former West Ham prodigy thriving at Anderlecht and on the international stage

Sometimes, the great world spins for you. A year ago, Josh Cullen was nobody's idea of the future. He had played a grand total of two minutes for Ireland over the previous 12 months, coming on as a late sub against Wales in a grinding scoreless draw. He hadn't made the matchday squad in four of the six internationals since everything had started back. He was no more than a name in the ether. There were a lot of names in the ether.

Life was no picnic at club level either. He had been at West Ham since he first learned how to tie his boots but that was over now. Fifteen years at the club had returned just three appearances of the bench in the Premier League, plus a handful of cup games here and there and a series of loan moves. On October 5th, he finally cut the cord and moved abroad, signing for Anderlecht.

Even at that, it was a move that looked a lot sexier on paper than it was in reality. Brussels in October 2020 was still in the teeth of a pretty stern lockdown and so Cullen and his girlfriend were stuck on the edge of a new city with nothing happening beyond training and playing and sleeping. He had to wait his turn to get into the team too, naturally enough.

So that's where he was in the middle of November 2020. Between club and country, he had played around 150 minutes of football in two months. Stephen Kenny liked him and Vincent Kompany liked him but that was par for the course. Everybody who had ever coached Josh Cullen or dealt with him had always liked him.


Smartly dressed

"He was a proper professional from day one," says Mark O'Toole, the FAI scout in England who had first approached Cullen and his family in 2012 to check whether he might want to play for Ireland. "Even something as small as the fact that he was always smartly dressed. You never saw him wearing raggedy shorts or anything like that. He was really well turned out and very particular and that translated to how he played.

“Very good on the ball, almost never gave it away. As a teenager, he would push forward a bit more than he does now and try to get on the end of things. But you find your job as a professional and he has found his. He has that great discipline, he reads the game well, he does his job. He never gives a manager a problem. You come across plenty of lads here and there who you can’t say that about but Josh is everything you’d want.”

Cullen had already played for the England under-16s when O'Toole came mooching. When you're scouting for Ireland, there's no use being bashful about asking the question. Cullen's grandparents on his father's side were from Leitrim and even with the England cap under his belt, he jumped at the chance. He came over for a couple of under-17 games under Tom Mohan but broke his leg soon after.

Nonetheless, he was in the system now. He played under-19 under Paul Doolin, all the way up to under-21 under Noel King. By the time he played his final underage game against Germany in 2018, he was the under-21 captain. He hadn't broken through at West Ham but he'd been Bradford's player of the season when out on loan. Still, he fit the profile of someone Ireland were more likely to hold onto.

“We actively pursued him,” says O’Toole. “And he did really well. Were England monitoring him as well? Yeah, probably. Did they want him back? You’d have to say probably not at that stage. They had lots of options.

“Josh was building a career for himself and he was doing okay. The player you see now is the player he has always been. Always aggressive, always a leader, infectious work-rate. The pressure never really came on him to make any other decision but to keep playing for Ireland. He just got on with his job.”

Football is merciless. Cullen is close to Declan Rice, who was a couple of years behind him in the West Ham academy. The bald reality of their situations is reflected in O'Toole's summing up. Rice became the West Ham holding midfielder that Cullen dreamed of being.

The knock-on effect was that England did everything they could to get Rice to change his international allegiances. Cullen fell from view and England never came back to pop the question. Sliding doors.

Yet here he is. The uptick in Cullen's career fortunes since this time last year has been remarkable. The move to Belgium has revived his career. No less a figure than Kompany has called him the most popular player in the Anderlecht squad.

“Those who admire him the most for his work are his teammates,” Kompany said earlier this year. “He has only one thing in mind - the team. Himself comes after, in the background. If the team wins, it is because he did a lot of jobs that the others could not do.

"Against Genk, for example, he hit his head and they put a bandage on him. Because I know he is of Irish descent and tough as iron, I slapped him on his bandage and said with a laugh, 'Are you okay? Come on, run then, and stop making excuses'.

"The same happened against Charleroi - he took a big tackle on the ankle, but I knew he would continue, even if his leg was cut in half."

He is the heartbeat of the Anderlecht side now. In the whole of the Belgian League this season, only four non-goalkeepers have played every minute of the 13 games so far. Cullen is the only Anderlecht player to do so. He is in the top 10 across the league's midfielders in terms of both tackles and interceptions.

Process possession

Cullen's role for Ireland has grown hand-in-hand. Nobody has played more minutes in the World Cup qualifiers than him - only he and Matt Doherty have started all six games. His was the cross from deep that Shane Duffy got onto late in the first Azerbaijan game in September to grab an equaliser. But mostly his role has been to sit deep and process possession, to keep the ball and keep Ireland moving.

Kenny has tried James McCarthy in that role, he gave Harry Arter a go early on, he has tricked about with various combinations of Conor Hourihane, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight and Jeff Hendrick in there. But none have settled in to anchor the midfield as well as Cullen. It's his position now, pencilled in for the foreseeable future. Nobody had that on their bingo card a year ago.

“Everyone’s journey is different,” he said a while back. “Everyone’s path in life is different. There are players who will burst onto the scene and play in the first team at 19 but they don’t go on to have the career at the highest level that people expected of them. On the other hand then there are players who might have to go out on loans and they end up playing first-team football a bit later on.

“Everyone has a different journey and mine has been to move to Anderlecht and keep working. It’s the best place for me to carry on my development as a player. Whatever your path is, you have to keep on working as hard as you can and believe in yourself and you will get your rewards in the end.”

At 25, Cullen is at a pivotal time in his career. At club level, his next contract should be the most lucrative of his career, be that at Anderlecht or on the back of a move. With Ireland, he will be key to the success - or otherwise - of the Kenny era. Nothing is guaranteed and nobody knows better than him that a lot can go wrong and it can all fizzle out very easily.

But it doesn’t have to, either. The past year alone is proof of that.