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Cullen in good Kompany as he bids for a role in World Cup qualifiers

The Anderlecht midfielder impressed after being introduced during Ireland’s recent clash with Bulgaria.

Updated Dec 4th 2020, 3:00 PM

FOR THE 15 years that he spent at the club, Josh Cullen’s main objective was to become a regular member of the first-team at West Ham United.

However, when a side managed by a four-time Premier League-winning captain registered their interest, he knew that the time had come to adjust his ambitions.

world-news-november-29-2020 Anderlecht's Josh Cullen tangles with Nicolas Raskin of Standard Liege. Source: Virginie Lefour

Two months since joining Anderlecht, Cullen is in line to make his sixth appearance for the club when they face Zulte Waregem in the Jupiler Pro League tonight.

The midfielder, who had been on West Ham’s books from the age of nine, made the move to Brussels in October on a three-year deal.

“Once the opportunity came to join a club as big as Anderlecht, with the history, the tradition, the ambition for the future – and coming to work under the manager and the staff here was a massive pull as well – it just felt right and it felt like it was the best thing for me to do to progress my career,” he says.

“I want to have the best career I possibly can. If that meant moving abroad, I was always open to it. When you get a club like Anderlecht interested in you, it’s hard to say no.”

Under the management of former Manchester City skipper Vincent Kompany, Anderlecht are currently in seventh place in the table with 14 games played.

Kompany has been tasked with bringing the club back to the summit of Belgian football by halting the slide that followed the most recent of their 34 title triumphs in 2017.

They’ve since finished third, sixth and eighth, while last year saw them fail to qualify for a European competition for the first time in 55 years.

Nevertheless, they remain the biggest name in Belgian football and their bid was attractive enough to entice Cullen away from a club he had supported since he was a kid growing up in Essex. 

Although he was restricted to just 10 first-team appearances as a West Ham player, a willingness to aid his development with loan moves allowed Cullen to pass the 150 mark for competitive senior club games by the time he turned 24 back in April.

world-news-september-27-2020 Cullen is playing under Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht. Source: Jasper Jacobs

He cut his teeth in League One and the Championship during spells with Bradford City, Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic, where he was “excellent for two years” according to manager Lee Bowyer.

Starting afresh on the continent, Cullen reckons the style of football in Belgium – where possession is nine-tenths of the law – can help him to excel.

“The philosophy and style of play at Anderlecht definitely suits me, I feel. That was a massive thing I had to think about and another reason why the move felt right. The style of football is great and I’m learning every day under the manager.

“I’m really enjoying the way the team trains, the way the team plays and I’m looking forward to really settling into that. With my attributes, I really feel like it’s the best place for me to improve within a team that’s ambitious and wants to play the right way.”

For Cullen, the opportunity to play for Vincent Kompany was also part of the attraction of taking his career to Belgium.

After ending an 11-year spell with Manchester City in May 2019, the 34-year-old former central defender returned to the club where he started his professional playing career to take his first steps as a manager.

“It’s been incredible, to be honest,” Cullen said of his time working under Kompany thus far. “The career he had as a player speaks for itself. He obviously would have picked up a lot of knowledge as well from the great managers he’s played under and the teams he’s played in.

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“To come and learn from him every day, you just need to be like a sponge and soak it all up. It’s something I’m really enjoying. I don’t think there’s a better place for me to be right now or a better person to be working under to keep developing my game and improving as a player.”

Cullen has also been assured by Stephen Kenny that his move to Anderlecht won’t have a detrimental impact on his international prospects. Adding to a tally of four senior caps is one of the former Republic of Ireland U21 captain’s objectives for 2021.

republic-of-ireland-v-bulgaria-uefa-nations-league-group-b4-aviva-stadium Republic of Ireland senior manager Stephen Kenny. Source: PA

He’s the first Irish international to play in Belgium since Dominic Foley, who moved there in 2005 and played over 200 times across seven seasons. Foley scored in the 2008 Belgian Cup final while captaining Gent against Anderlecht, but his exploits ultimately didn’t earn him a chance to add to the six caps he won in 2000 under Mick McCarthy.

“The manager and the staff watch every player with their club and that’ll be no different with me,” Cullen says. “He spoke to me and said they’ll be keeping a close eye on me, as they do for every player.”

After replacing Daryl Horgan in the 67th minute of last month’s Uefa Nations League game against Bulgaria, Cullen exerted a positive influence almost immediately.

Nevertheless, the goalless draw was emblematic of Ireland’s recent struggles in front of goal, which have seen them fail to score in seven consecutive outings.

The fixture marked the end of a difficult first year in the manager’s job for Stephen Kenny. There were plenty of encouraging signs, particularly relating to the philosophy and approach, but Kenny has yet to experience a victory after eight games in charge.

“Against Bulgaria I felt good out there and that we were playing well in the closing stages. I go out to try to help the team as well as I can whenever I’m given an opportunity,” says Cullen, who produced a man-of-the-match performance when making his Ireland debut against the same opposition 14 months earlier.

“I definitely feel like we’re getting used to the ideas of the new manager and the way he wants us to play. I’m learning under him and the coaches, and when I get on the pitch I try to put that into practice. Hopefully that’s what I did in the minutes I got against Bulgaria. I just have to keep working away here at Anderlecht and hopefully I’ll get more chances.”

The Ireland squad won’t assemble again until the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign begins next March, with the Boys in Green set to discover their opponents in Monday’s draw.

Despite the inauspicious beginning to his reign, Cullen remains adamant that Kenny is capable of overseeing significant progress after a dismal period for the national team which can be traced back to the last days of Martin O’Neill’s tenure.

josh-cullen-and-kristiyan-malinov Cullen in possession for Ireland against Bulgaria. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He says: “Everyone can see since he’s taken over that the performance levels have been good. Okay, we haven’t had the results that we desire, but the performances in the majority of the games have been good and we’ve got to take confidence from that.

“It’s going to take time and that’s only natural. It can be hard enough for a new manager coming in at club level to put their imprint on a team, but it’s even harder for an international manager because he doesn’t get much time at all to work with the players on the training pitch, especially with the last few international windows having three games. 

“We know football is a results business and we have to be winning games. We haven’t been doing that recently but I’m really optimistic about what’s ahead for this team in terms of both performances and results.

“When we meet up again in March, we have to look to kick on for a big campaign for the World Cup qualifiers.”

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey preview Ireland-Scotland, chat Ben Healy and Johnny Sexton’s futures, and discuss Argentina’s shocking handling of the racism storm involving their captain:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Dollery

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