Tuesday 16 January 2018

Young Hammer Cullen prepared to bide time for club and country

Cullen: Learning on loan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Cullen: Learning on loan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

John Fallon

An abundance of midfield competition at West Ham United and Ireland may be enough to disillusion a rookie but Josh Cullen looks upon the challenge as something to relish rather than baulk at.

The 20-year-old will harness an Ireland U-21 midfield for Friday's concluding UEFA qualifier against Serbia alongside Jack Byrne and Alan Browne, a pair of playmakers already invited into the senior set-up by Martin O'Neill.

Although injury prevented Preston North End regular Browne from accepting, Byrne seized upon the golden ticket by showcasing his capabilities in training to O'Neill and Roy Keane ahead of the friendly against Switzerland last March.

Unlike that duo, Cullen has sampled the Premier League, albeit as a late cameo role in the Hammers' win at Anfield 14 months ago. That was one of four appearances granted to the Londoner by Slaven Bilic over a month before the then teen underwent the familiar ritual of loan activity.

Bradford City became his temporary home for the remainder of last season, and he helped them into the League One play-offs; and though he spent the pre-season back at his parent club, Cullen was soon back up north.

Coping manfully for 82 minutes in the friendly against the Italian champions Juventus in the first game at their new London Arena stadium demonstrated his readiness for top-flight action but he admitted the reunion with Bradford later that week represented the best decision for all parties.

Just like Ireland's central-midfield is the most congested in the squad in terms of options, as evidenced by Harry Arter's struggles to snare a spot, the likes of Mark Noble, Cheikhou Kouyate and Manuel Lanzini are in possession of the berths at West Ham with no intention of facilitating the new crop.

"In all my years supporting and playing for West Ham, I think this is the club's strongest squad," explained Cullen, who last year signed a new contract keeping him at the club until 2018.

"My aim is to eventually play for West Ham in the Premier League but the best place for me at the moment is on loan.

"I want to be playing games and am doing that every week with Bradford. They're a big club and to be playing in front of 18,000 fans for home games is a great experience."

Equally central to his ambitions is senior international recognition, an avenue all the more realistic given the promotion of his U-21 colleagues in recent months.

"Callum O'Dowda is with the seniors this week and the two goalkeepers, Danny Rogers and Ian Lawlor, have also been called in," he explained.

"There's a lot of quality midfielders available at senior level but it's every boy's dream to represent your country and hopefully I can keep impressing the manager."

Due to the elevation of Rogers and Lawlor, manager Noel King has drafted in League of Ireland stoppers Eric Grimes (Cork City) and Stephen McGuinness (Drogheda United) to compete with Belgium-based Liam Bossin for the No 1 spot.

Irish Independent

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