Saturday 18 August 2018

Exciting Hammers duo out to impress in U-21 midfield

Instead of retaining Rice for the current double-header of World Cup qualifiers, O’Neill allowed the teen to boost King’s prospects of racking up six points from their opening two fixtures in the pool. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Instead of retaining Rice for the current double-header of World Cup qualifiers, O’Neill allowed the teen to boost King’s prospects of racking up six points from their opening two fixtures in the pool. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

John Fallon

As Ireland's senior midfielders face another test tonight from Serbia, two potential contenders for future slots from West Ham will be auditioning in the Under-21s against Azerbaijan (3.0, Irish time).

Josh Cullen, promoted to captain by manager Noel King for this campaign, will be joined in the engine-room for the first time on international duty by his Hammers colleague Declan Rice.

Their composure will be needed as the Irish look to build upon their win over Kosovo in the opening 2019 European Championship qualifier in March.

Baku in September presents similar humidity challenges to those apparent for the senior squad in Tbilisi last weekend and ball retention will be vital.

Both London-born, Cullen was first to grab the attention of Slaven Bilic two years ago, earning four first-team outings before being sent on loan to Bradford City in February 2016.

That's where the 21-year-old remained until last May when the adventure culminated with a League One play-off defeat to Millwall.

Phil Parkinson, his former boss at Bradford, has now taken Cullen on loan to newly-promoted Bolton Wanderers in the Championship.

Rice, another playmaker to declare for Ireland through the grandparent rule, has been kept at the London Stadium by the Croatian and started all three of their Premier League games up to the international break.

Martin O'Neill also liked the look of the 18-year-old, fast-tracking him into the senior squad's training camp in Cork in May 24 hours after being granted his top-flight bow by Bilic.

Instead of retaining Rice for the current double-header of World Cup qualifiers, however, O'Neill allowed the teen to boost King's prospects of racking up six points from their opening two fixtures in the pool.

Far tougher assignments are in store next year when the Irish face reigning champions Germany, yet the priority for now is surviving the 5000km trek east.

"Declan could be a key player for us in this campaign," predicted Cullen.

"He's been in training with the senior squad but is focused on helping our squad get results in this campaign to try qualify for the finals.

"Declan knows that he's not fully there yet in his career but is doing well so far for our club. He played a few years younger than me at West Ham and, although he wasn't the standout player in terms of ability, Declan had a brilliant drive and determination.

"For myself, the aim is to keep getting experience in the Championship."

Ireland (probable): K O'Hara (Manchester United); D Kane (Huddersfield Town), R Sweeney (Bristol Rovers), S Donnellan (West Brom), C Whelan (Liverpool); D Rice (West Ham), J Cullen (Bolton Wanderers); C Ronan (Wolves), R Manning (QPR), R Greco-Cox (QPR); R Curtis (Derry City).

Irish Independent

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