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Burnley’s award-winning Josh Cullen points way for late-blooming Irish internationals ​

Republic of Ireland international Josh Cullen. Photo: Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE


JOSH CULLEN is the type of good-news story that national teams like Ireland rely upon.

His collection of the senior international Player of the Year award for 2021 shines a deserved spotlight on a player whose value becomes even more apparent when he is absent from Stephen Kenny’s side.

While the public are excited by the emergence of Nathan Collins and Gavin Bazunu, two U-21 eligible players now operating regularly at Premier League, the rise of Cullen is impressive because of how far he’s travelled in a short time. This time two years ago, there were doubts over whether he was part of Kenny’s long-term vision.

Now, the 26-year-old has climbed the ladder to first choice with a Vincent Kompany-managed Burnley side that is top of the Championship table.

Good things have come his way.

The hope for a world-class talent coming through the ranks will never die and the irony, of course, is that Cullen was very close with a player who ticks that box, Declan Rice, when they travelled to Irish U-21 duty together.

Ireland will always be hoping for another Rice, preferably a home-grown version, but while these are probably once-in-a-generation talents in the context of a smaller country, there will always be a need for late bloomers in the Cullen bracket who exceed expectations.

The 2015 winner of the award, Jon Walters, is a good example. So too is current assistant boss Keith Andrews, the recipient of the 2012 gong.

Londoner Cullen gave a strong mention to Andrews, whose playing credentials have been questioned repeatedly across the past week as Martin O’Neill settles scores on his book tour circuit.

Andrews, the last midfielder to receive the distinction, was 28 when he made his Ireland bow. Cullen’s breakthrough didn’t take that long, but it has been a gradual process.

Football fanatics like to look five years into the future and predict what a team may look like and invariably there’s a tendency to lean towards the most-hyped teenagers of the forthcoming generation.

In 2017, the year where Cullen turned 21, he had loan spells at Bradford and Bolton, and while regular viewers of Noel King’s U-21 side suggested he was one of the likeable lads in their ranks, he wasn’t commanding big headlines.

As recently as October 2020, he was on the standby list for the Euro Championship play-off against Slovakia, with an injury to Harry Arter opening the door.

When multiple players were struck down ahead of the match with Wales in that window, Cullen was restricted to a minute off the bench. And in November 2020, his only involvement was a cameo for a depleted side against Bulgaria where Jason Knight, an emergency call-up from the U-21 group, was preferred in a deep-lying role next to Conor Hourihane.

Evidently, Kenny needed convincing of his abilities. But he watched Cullen play for Anderlecht and reached the conclusion that he was improving in all areas, especially with regard to his range of passing.

For the next camp in March, Cullen was pitched in from the restart for the World Cup qualifier with Serbia in Belgrade and he hasn’t really looked back since, leading to the award for 2021 – which was presented by Paul McGrath at the team hotel earlier this week.

The drop-off rate in football is also heavily influenced by attitude and professionalism and there is no history of complaints about Cullen on that score. It has allowed him to respond positively to what was effectively rejection at West Ham, his boyhood club.

“You have periods, whether it’s injuries or not being in the squad or teams, disappointing results, disappointing spells of form or whatever it may be, you learn to deal with them and overcome it,” he said.

“That is part of being a professional sportsman and part of the job and you have to do all of those things.

“You have to earn everything in your career. Nobody has a divine right to be in the senior squad for your country. There are bumps in the road in your career along the way. I had been involved under Mick (McCarthy) before the current manager came in.

“Yeah, it was disappointing not to be in the first few squads but I knew I just had to get my head down and work hard.

“Since I have been in, the manager has shown great trust and belief in me, and it has been a really enjoyable period for me.”

The best days should still be ahead of him.

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