Josh Cullen is a young West Ham player on the rise. PDP Editor, Dave Wright spoke at length with Josh about his long journey through the West Ham Academy, the value of honesty and the challenge of being pushed outside of his comfort zone.


Josh Cullen was born in Hackney in 1996. For the first few years of his life, he lived in Bow, East London – a stone’s throw away from the future home of West Ham United, the Queen Elizabeth Stadium. At the age of four his family moved to Wickford, East Essex, about 30 miles away, and it was here that Josh had his first football memories, kicking a ball around his garden with his dad and cousin. A football-mad kid, he would kick a ball anytime he could, “even in the lounge”, he laughs. “It used to drive my mum mad, I was always breaking glass and picture frames!”

Josh played for his first organised, competitive team at Rayleigh when he was around seven years old. His ability with a ball at his feet was recognised quickly.

Like many young players around the greater London area, he was “spotted” after playing grassroots under the guidance of his father. Aged nine, Josh signed for the West Ham Academy, back in East London.

Despite this early exposure to the intense world of academy football and “mainly focussing on football”, Josh did play other sports, most notably, karate and cricket. He explains, “I did play a bit of cricket between 10–16 and also did karate when I was younger. When I became a scholar [aged 16] I had to give up cricket as it all became a bit more serious. When you’re contracted to a club you can’t risk being injured playing another sport.”

He adds: “Karate had good advantages for my overall strength at a younger age and the cricket probably helped me mentally. I felt like cricket really helped me cope with pressure, whether batting or bowling, and that certainly stood me in good stead in football.”

As his academy journey began, he went from the guidance of his dad to numerous coaches. When asked if there were any particularly important influences on his journey, he humbly states “I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out!”. When pressed however, he discusses some of the key figures in his development. “My friend’s dad and my dad started me off. They just put sessions on where we learned the basics around first touch, but most of all just enjoyed ourselves.”

He continues, “When I came into the [West Ham] academy, coaches like Nick Haycock were heavily involved, and Mark Philips – who is still there as the U18 assistant manager – and Steve Potts – who is the youth team manager now – were really important. Steve was very helpful when I was coming through.”

As he has gone on to be a young professional, Josh credits Terry Westley (current Academy Director) as “being very helpful getting me a loan move” and Liam Manning (U23s coach) as someone who “has had a strong influence.” He also credits Greg De Carnys (Head of Performance) as someone who “has been a mentor for the last couple of years and is always pushing me.” Grateful to the many staff who have helped, Josh explains, “I’ve been lucky along the way to have some really helpful people around me.”

In an age where many parents can be seen as pushy in the world of “elite” player development and a dangerous mix of expectation and pressure can be piled on young players early on, I ask Josh to discuss the influence of his parents and how they impacted his journey from young grassroots player, to U23 prospect.

He is clearly indebted to his parents, saying, “My parents never pushed me into football or made me go to football, it was my decision. I’ve loved football from as early as I can remember kicking a ball, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. They supported me all along and my dad helped out with our team when we we very young.” Outlining the often overlooked sacrifices that parents have to make for their children, Josh is well aware of the effort that went in to helping him have a chance of not only staying in the game, but also giving him a chance at a career. He continues, “When I joined the academy, they put in huge hours supporting me, getting me to training three times a week and games on Sunday. I can’t thank them enough. It used to be a 45-minute trip each way. If they hadn’t put that effort in for so many years, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to get to where I am now and to have the chance of trying to get to the level I am aiming for.”

Josh has had a promising start to senior football, with three first team appearances at West Ham to his name and almost 60 for Bradford City on loan. However, he believes that he is currently at the most difficult part of his footballing journey to date. He explains, “When you’re a young academy player there is always the next stage waiting, you’re trying to move up. But with football the way it is now, talent comes from all over the world. So, to achieve my dream and play for West Ham’s first team, I have to be better than someone that the club can go and buy. I need to make myself the best choice, a player that they can trust to play for the first team.”

Speaking about the transition from from Premier League U23 player and loanee to first team regular, he continues: “It’s tough. I have had a taste, played a couple of minutes in the Premier League and played in the Europa league, but I still don’t feel I’m where I want to be. It’s easy for young players to get complacent once they start training with the first team, but I know I have a lot of work ahead of me and a lot to prove. It’s not going to be easy.”

You sense with Josh not only does he have a desire and determination in his voice, but he is well aware of the world he finds himself in. A ruthless environment where it really is a survival of the fittest. I start digging in to what kind of coaches Josh has responded to as he has evolved into a promising young player. And it seems, honesty is the best policy…

“However, they combine that honesty with the balance that they could recognise when you were performing well and gave you praise and encouragement accordingly.”

“The coaches I’ve responded to best are the ones who were quick to tell you when you weren’t giving it 100%, or weren’t working at the level or concentrating fully. However, they combine that honesty with the balance that they could recognise when you were performing well and gave you praise and encouragement accordingly.” He continues, “I think it’s a balance of making sure players don’t get too comfortable or are always being told they’re doing well but not told when they are struggling. Obviously, everyone likes to be praised and told they are doing well as it builds confidence to express yourself, but it’s also important to take it on board when you’re not 100% focussed.”

Josh makes it clear how important it is for a coach to have a personality, saying: “I think it’s important to be enthusiastic first and foremost. The session has to be fun. That enthusiasm rubs off on the players. When you see the coaches are ‘up’ and positive about the session, enjoying themselves and being vocal, having some fun with it as well as working seriously, the players feed off that. It gives the session an extra buzz about it.”

And is it a case of just getting by on enthusiasm for aspiring young coaches? Josh believes adaptability relative to the environment you find yourself coaching in is key, explaining, “There are times (perhaps in analysis sessions) where people have to be a bit more softly spoken and make pointers where people are doing well or going wrong. The best coaches seem to be able to find the balance and read the player’s mood as an individual or a team. If the team is down, maybe they need a fun session, so timing and balance are really important in how coaches deliver their message.”

“Every time I play or train, I try to make sure I can’t question myself and say, ‘have I left something in the tank?’”

In a system where very few players last the journey for a variety of reasons, none more than the fiercely competitive nature of academy football, how has Josh managed to stay the course and give himself a chance at a career in the game? He shares his experience and reflects, saying, “I think it’s a case of living football every day. Every time I went to train I would always give 100% and leave everything on the pitch. My dad and I have spoken over the years about how hard it is to make it in this game and be a top player. I’ve never wanted to look back and have regrets. Every time I play or train, I try to make sure I can’t question myself and say, ‘have I left something in the tank?’”

Clearly a young man driven to succeed and one who has a strong work ethic, Cullen appears to be well aware of the history of West Ham and the pedigree of player that the East London club became famous for developing, saying, “Just because you’re at West Ham academy doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great player like Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Mark Noble and players like that. There are so many players within academies all over the world, you can’t cut corners. You always have to look to develop yourself every session and work hard.”

Given the club has had such a successful track record in years gone by, I ask him to give us some insight into the player development philosophy at West Ham.

“In my experience,” he replies, “the player development philosophy is very unique. It’s individualised in the sense we all have an individual plan and a position specific plan. These are kept in folders at the training ground and we have clear expectations around what’s required of us in different positions. This concept came in three or four years ago and was a good change. It impressed us as players and means every player is their own man, has their own path. It might take players a few loans before you make the first team whereas others might go straight in.”

So with an individual approach at the heart of the philosophy, what should we look for when we see a West Ham team play? He answers, “The playing style is about playing a good, attractive style of football. We like to get the ball on the floor and play a passing style, work hard out of possession, get the ball back quickly and really work hard for our teammates. In possession, we are encouraged to be creative and express ourselves with technical quality. We have the desire to win the ball back quickly but also know how to get into a shape and get organised.”

Clearly Josh is well versed on the West Ham way but in recent times, like many young English professionals, Josh is out on loan at Bradford City – currently in his second spell at the club – learning his trade against experienced pros in League One, the third tier of English football. How has his experience been in the North of England and what are the benefits of going out on loan?

“It’s been really hard,” he says. “Just wearing another team’s kit and experiencing another team’s training ground was really difficult at first. However, it’s an experience that’s really helped me grow on and off the pitch. It’s been tough being away from family, friends and my girlfriend. As a 19 or 20-year-old lad it can be quite daunting. However, for any young player that has that feeling of doubt, it’s a valuable experience that will stand you in great stead.”

Clearly Josh has had to adapt and grow up off the pitch away from the creature comforts he was so used to in Essex. What have his experiences been like on the pitch? He continues, “The first time I walked out at Valley Parade I was playing in front of 17–18,000 people each week. Some of our big games have been 20,000 plus. If I am going to achieve my goal of playing in the Premier League in front of big crowds I have to be able to deal with it, so it’s been a great challenge and I have learned a lot.”

On top of his experience playing 58 games in League One at the time of writing, Josh is also a youth international, having captained the Republic of Ireland U21 team. He made his international debut as an England U16 before switching his allegiance to Ireland thanks to his grandparents, and is “really proud to represent” the Boys in Green.

“My dream growing up was to become a senior international, so to do that for Ireland would be fantastic. The team acquitted themselves really well at the Euros and If I can be a part of that in the future, play at major tournaments and help progress the standard of the national team that would be brilliant. I am playing for the U21s and am fully focussed on trying to qualify for the U21 European Championships, but the long-term goal is to play in the senior team and represent Ireland on the world stage.”

As our time came to an end I was keen to hear what advice Josh would offer to coaches working with young players. He is clear in his view, saying, “Make sure your players are enjoying the sessions and you have a good relationship with them. It’s important that you are an approachable person, that if they have any problems with their game or they want to talk to you about anything they see you as a figure that you can sit down with or come to at any time. Whilst the sessions and the environment need to be fun and enjoyable, it’s so important that the coach is honest with the players. If players need to be told they need to improve, don’t be scared to tell them because in the long run that’s only going to be beneficial to them.”

Josh Cullen comes across as a player well in tune with his own learning journey and the competitive world he lives in. A credit to the West Ham Academy, Josh is clearly a young man with drive and ambition who finds himself on the verge of a professional career and achieving his long held dreams.

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