Ireland's Adam Idah and Josh Cullen after the game. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland's Player of the Match will be key for the next manager

Josh Cullen impressed in the draw against Belgium on Satuday.

THE MORE THINGS change, the more they stay the same.

It was a new era for Ireland on Saturday, yet a familiar face took home the man-of-the-match award.

Josh Cullen forged a reputation as a reliable performer at the heart of central midfield under Stephen Kenny.

Only two players — Matt Doherty and James McClean — made more appearances under Kenny than Cullen.

And on Saturday, the 27-year-old provided a reminder of why he was such a favourite of the previous boss.

With help from the considerably less experienced Will Smallbone, Cullen performed unseen work rarely appreciated in football, protecting the backline with diligence, discipline and intelligent positional awareness while rarely giving the ball away.

It was the type of performance that the man now watching on from the sidelines — assistant coach Glenn Whelan — invariably produced in 91 appearances for his country.

Winning his 33rd cap on Saturday, Cullen still has some way to go to match Whelan’s tally but such a feat is not inconceivable if he can maintain his current level of performance in the years to come.

While they had occasional bright attacking moments, interim boss John O’Shea will have been most pleased at how defensively sound his team looked and Cullen was at the heart of their best work in that regard.

Their opponents were largely reduced to half-chances despite boasting the star power of Jeremy Doku, who Man City signed for €64 million in the summer, along with other top Premier League players, including Aston Villa’s Youri Tielemans and Arsenal’s Leandro Trossard.

The Belgians looked short of ideas against an impressively set up Irish side.

O’Shea began with a 3-4-3 formation that essentially turned into a 5-4-1 when the visitors were on the attack, with Chiedozie Ogbene and Sammie Szmodics providing extra protection for Cullen and Smallbone in the centre, allowing Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady to alternate between full-back and wing-back roles.

“First half we had the penalty miss and a couple of other good chances, I thought we were really good in the first half that led to them changing shape,” Cullen told reporters afterwards.

“Second half at times we had to suffer a bit but when you are playing against teams the calibre of Belgium you are going to have to expect that. Overall being in five days of work under the new management and building towards a game like this I think we can be pleased with a lot of what we did.”

Cullen praised not just O’Shea and his staff, but the previous regime under whom he established himself as a key figure.

“A lot of the work they did has stood us in good stead for this week. We have been in tight matches and come out on the wrong side of results. It’s a stepping stone tonight that the work we have done with the new management this week, if it was a competitive game we would have come away with a point. By the time the Nations League comes around, the qualifiers will be important, the next step is turning positive performances into winning games.”

On the influence of O’Shea and co, Cullen added: “We had some very clear ideas we started working on at the start of the week that we knew what our shape was going to look like, we knew the ideas as a team, how we wanted to hurt Belgium and I think we showed that. There were a lot of things we worked on this week that I think we can be pleased with from the game.”

It has similarly been a baptism of fire for Cullen in the Premier League — in his first season as a regular at that level — featuring for a Burnley side fighting to avoid relegation.

It’s been tough at times on a personal level too. Having been a virtual ever-present last season under Vincent Kompany when they won promotion from the Championship, the team’s poor form led to the midfielder being dropped from the starting XI earlier in the season.

However, he has still featured in 16 of their 29 top-flight matches. Moreover, he appears to have come out the right side of this rough patch, starting the Clarets’ last three successive Premier League games, having only played once from the outset before then since the turn of the year.

Cullen says the experience has made him a better footballer.

“Throughout your career, you always try to improve. I don’t think that will ever stop until the day you stop playing, trying to find ways to get better and there’s no better place to be doing it than the Premier League because you’re getting the toughest tests week in and week out. I feel like I’m still progressing, trying to develop as a player and enjoying my football.”

Cullen claims he is in the dark like the rest of us in terms of the identity of Ireland’s next permanent manager.

However, a cursory glance at the other midfielders in the squad emphasises how key he is likely to be to the new man’s plans.

Smallbone, Jason Knight, Jamie McGrath, Mark Sykes and Finn Azaz all tend to do their best work closer to the opposition’s goal.

Cullen is arguably the one quality out-and-out number six at Ireland’s disposal — young hopefuls like Joe Hodge and Conor Coventry are still learning and some way off the Burnley star’s level.

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