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'You've to put your heart and soul into getting the most from your career - Josh Cullen on driving forces

Exclusive: The Ireland and Burnley midfielder tells The42 about his determination to make it to the top and how Stephen Kenny and Vincent Kompany are helping him get there.

Ireland's Josh Cullen.
Ireland's Josh Cullen.
Image: PA

THE ERA OF convenient Zoom press conferences are now at an end.

This meant that when the email from Burnley dropped on Wednesday confirming that Josh Cullen would be put up for interview the following day, the turnaround to make it over for a sit down with the Ireland midfielder was too tight.

Instead of being able to log on for a video call, five minutes were hastily – and helpfully – allotted to The42 on the phone before he spoke to those journalists in the room.

Five minutes became 10.

Ten became 15.

Turned out Cullen was happy to keep talking and, just like on the pitch, was very effective with the use of his time.

“I feel like I’ve taken my game to a different level. It hasn’t been one thing that I’ve tried to change, but like I’ve always done before I have been trying to work as hard as I can every day to be the best in training ever day,” he begins.

“Everything I do I do it to the best level I can because the little results I am feeling in my game now, and what people are seeing in my game are the result of hard work.

“I feel like it’s all coming to the forefront at the minute and going well, but you always know that you have to keep working because form can come and go, what has to stay is work rate and attitude, that desire has to always stay to improve as a player and get better all the time.

huddersfield-town-v-burnley-sky-bet-championship-john-smiths-stadium Cullen made an impressive Burnley debut last Friday. Source: PA

“That’s the truth of it,” Cullen continues. “People see you for 90 minutes in the game but don’t see what goes on behind it all. The hard work on training field, the gym work, the sacrifices you make in your personal life to give yourself the best opportunity to perform in training every day and then playing games.

“There is a lot more to it than people see but that’s part of the job. It’s a short career and if you really want to be the best that you can be while playing that means being as dedicated as you can be to make that happen.

“Those sacrifices you make to be the best you possibly can be, and the only way to do that is to put your heart and soul into it.”

Those sentiments, backed up by ability, are the reason he has become a central figure for both Vincent Kompany and Stephen Kenny.

It may feel like a honeymoon period at his new club but his form over the last two years, from club and country, indicates this a player delivering with a consistency that will continue to see his star rise.

“The confidence comes with playing a lot of games, and playing well,” he reasons. “At Anderlecht, I felt that was the best football of career. That was reflected in how I was playing for Ireland and it just feels like an enjoyable time at the minute.”

It really wasn’t looking that way as recently as two years ago.

Cullen turned 26 in April and the sense is that he is entering his prime, but in the autumn of 2020 it felt more like a drift. From the outside, at least.

world-news-february-7-2021 Vincent Kompany (left) with Cullen at Anderlecht. Source: Johan Eyckens

He was in the last year of his West Ham United contract, managed just six Premier League minutes by the age of 24, and needed loan spells with Bradford City – then of League Two – Bolton Wanderers and two stints with Charlton Athletic to get a proper feeling for the game.

It was around this time he was in the mix of the Ireland squad, but still striving to make an impact.

Then Craig Bellamy made a phone call to his old Newcastle United and West Ham teammate Lee Bowyer, Cullen’s boss at Charlton, to get the lowdown on his capabilities, and character.

The reports were glowing so when Bellamy joined Vincent Kompany’s coaching staff at Anderlecht the channels of communication were already open. What followed was the start of an upward trajectory that shows no signs of slowing down.

He was an ever-present for the Belgian club last season and, by the time he featured in all four of Ireland’s Nations League games in June, his total for 2021/22 reached 60 appearances.

But it’s not all about him, there is a tunnel vision to improve but he’s not blind to those around him, something he is well aware of and uses as inspiration. “My fiancée moved with me to Belgium,” Cullen explains.

“So she moved from all her family, her friends, everyone she knows, to be with me for that support. This was during the pandemic, there was the travel ban. So it’s not only about myself. That’s a sacrifice from her, so the choices I make in my career affect others too.

Anderlecht felt like the right move for me at the right time to improve, it was the right choice and I will miss the people there. I am so grateful for the people I met there. They were fantastic in so many ways to me and my fiancée and I will always be thankful to them.

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“There are people I’ve met there that I will stay in contact with for the rest of my life.”

As was so clearly detailed on The42 earlier this week, Cullen showed a side to his game on his Burnley debut against Huddersfield Town that gave an indication to Ireland fans that there is even more to come from a player that cost just €3.5 million – although the fee may have as much to do with the fact he was in the last year of his deal rather than going under the radar.

“Mentality is huge, not only in football but anything you do in life,” Cullen continues. “If you are dedicated and put your mind to it you should always believe you can achieve something special.

“Talent is not enough. The mentality to get better every day and be the best you can be is crucial. I believe in my ability and what I am capable of doing. Whatever I am told by the manager, for club or country, whatever way they want me to play for team, that’s what I will do.

“It’s a team sport and the team comes first. I will do what I have to for the team. If that’s getting forward or needing to be more disciplined, whatever. If it’s keeping the team ticking, I can do that as well. I believe in my ability and I have that confidence in myself.

“In every game, whatever role (the) manager wants me to carry out that’s what I will do.”

ukraine-v-republic-of-ireland-uefa-nations-league-group-1-stadion-miejski-im-wladyslawa-krola Cullen in action for Ireland against Ukraine in June. Source: PA

No wonder Kompany and Kenny both can’t do without him, two managers who have benefitted from his talent but also been able to harness it.

“The manager here, it’s not too long ago that he was a player so he understands the modern player and how modern football is. He is brilliant for me and I feel like I am learning every day,” Cullen says ahead of a home debut against Luton Town.

“It’s the same with Ireland and with the style of play that we have implemented, it suits me. They (Kompany and Kenny) are two different managers but their ideas are similar, and you learn working with them.

“I believe in myself now coming up against top class international players and it proves a point to yourself that you can compete against those types of players the way we play.

“I’ve always had that self-belief that I could make my mark for Ireland so I want to continue that now and keep producing to get to the highest level possible for club and country.”

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