After a disappointing 2017 for Irish football, 2018 has sprung some welcome relief with some fantastic individual performances since the turn of the New Year.
Shane Long finally broke his long goal drought, James McClean has put a run of games together scoring in the process and the likes of Greg Cunningham and James McCarthy have returned after long injury lay offs.
In the past week, Declan Rice looks to have further established himself in the West Ham first team. An assured performance against Spurs followed on from some promising cameos throughout the season. It is hard to believe Rice is still only 19 given the composure and confidence he displays.
In the Hammers dour 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury, there was a huge surprise as the man Rice partners in midfield for the Irish under-21s, Josh Cullen, was handed a start. Some were under the impression the youngster was still on loan at Bolton but he was thrust into the action after a disappointing spell with the Trotters.
Despite West Ham’s struggles, Rice, Cullen and Reece Burke stood out. As already mentioned, Rice and Cullen form a strong midfield partnership for Noel King’s under-21 charges. Against Shrewsbury, Rice occupied the left hand side of a back three and Cullen the right hand side of a midfield three.
Rice looked assured in defence, dealing with some arial threats from the Shrews and put in some courageous tackles. Rice also showed the running dynamic to his game, getting forward from centre half and at one stage flicking the ball skillfully on the side line.
Cullen on the other hand was possibly the tidiest player on the pitch in possession. His deliveries were good, his ball control excellent and he also managed to do the rounds on social media after losing his teeth after a high challenge. To his credit, Ireland’s under-21 captain played on after receiving treatment.
It would be foolish to base a notion that the pair should receive senior Ireland call-ups off the back of a third round FA Cup tie against a League Two team. However, the fact of the matter is that this tie has simply reminded us of just how good this pair could be and what qualities they already possess.
Both have already been touted for senior caps in the last several months and the given their shining performances in an otherwise disgraceful West Ham performance, a gentle reminder has been sent out of what they can bring to the Irish team.
Both have captained the Hammers at underage level with Rice in particular one of the highest rated young defenders in the Premier League. He looks a cut above many young defenders to come through youth set ups i the past few years. He has a similar playing style and versatility to Spurs man Eric Dier and will hope to emulate the 23 year old.
Cullen has over 50 first team appearances between loan spells at Bolton and Bradford, and a solitary league appearance with his parent club. He was regarded as arguably the best central midfielder in League 1 at Bradford, and despite a mixed time at Bolton dominated by injury, could be afforded a shot by David Moyes.
Cullen has been Ireland’s stand out player in the so-far successful under-21 campaign and looked like the best player on the pitch against Norway and Israel at home. He was also praised throughout on BBC’s coverage of the FA Cup ties. His tidiness and comfort in possession bears a striking resemblance to former Hammers midfielder Scott Parker.
It is this compose, comfort and maturity beyond their years that could make Rice and Cullen perfect candidates to come into the senior Ireland squad this year. As already mentioned, the pairs ability has been well known before now and they are possibly better than some of the players already around the squad.
Rice has what it takes already and could enable Ireland to play with a bit more composure and ball playing from the back. Cullen has stood at in senior football and despite his lack of action at West Ham could fit in nicely to the Ireland set up.
The likes of Ben Woodburn and Ethan Ampadu for Wales are recent examples of two players with only a handful of first team appearances that have not looked out of place internationally.
In the past several years, Ireland have lacked the bit of composure and quality that Rice and Cullen can bring to the side. The over reliance on safe selections has not always gone to plan and this years friendlies are an opportunity to look outside the box.
Senior international recognition could also encourage David Moyes to afford the pair more first team opportunities. Moyes has never been afraid to promote youth and has a great track record with development players.
Ireland have had little to cheer for when it comes to young players. Many have dropped down leagues or simply cannot catch a break. Jack Byrne who could still be a fantastic asset to Ireland has stalled but evidently has flaws within his game.
However, there seems to be a bit of quality and maturity to Rice and Cullen that has not been seen with other Irish youngsters, the question is how long will it take for this to become recognised.
As already mentioned, these calls for Rice and Cullen’s inclusion in the Ireland squad extend much further than their performances today but rather the potential they have shown in the past couple of years whether that be away on loan, at development or underage level. The are two players definitely worth getting excited and senior caps this year would do absolutely no harm.
Ireland have been guilty of waiting too long to cap emerging talent.
With a bit of luck, both will get a run with West Ham and push towards Ireland places. Both are already good enough and should be allowed to prove it now rather than several years down the line.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena