Josh Cullen recalls the night he made his Hammers debut

Josh Cullen

Lifelong Hammers fan Josh Cullen remembers the night he made his West Ham United debut in front of a capacity Boleyn Ground crowd...

West Ham United behaved themselves during the 2014/15 Premier League season.

Sam Allardyce’s players were shown just two red cards and booked 65 times in their 38 top-flight matches, which saw them finish top of the Fair Play League.

With English clubs among the three most disciplined in Europe that same season, the Hammers’ relatively clean record earned them a place in the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League first qualifying round.

There, they were drawn to face Andorran Primera Divisio runners-up FC Lusitans, a club founded as recently as 1999 in the landlocked Pyrenean microstate’s capital Andorra La Vella, and whose Estadi Comunal stadium seated just 1,249 spectators.

West Ham would play at home first, though, kicking-off their final season at the Boleyn Ground on the sun-soaked evening of Thursday 2 July.

Before the game, newly-appointed manager Slaven Bilic was introduced to the capacity crowd, but it was Terry Westley who would take charge on the night, and the Academy Director was able to name no fewer than eleven graduates in his matchday 18.

Among them was 19-year-old substitute Josh Cullen, who had captained the U21s and twice been named on the Premier League bench the previous campaign, but was yet to make his first-team debut.

A lifelong West Ham fan, Cullen was born into a Hammers-mad family in the Essex resort of Westcliff-on-Sea and grew up dreaming of pulling on the famous Claret and Blue shirt.

“We got into the Europa League through Fair Play, so it was a bit hectic,” recalled Cullen, now 21. “At the end of the season before, no-one knew when we were going to be reporting back for pre-season.

“I got a message to say I would be back in on the 19 or 20 June and that was really early, but we had to prepare for the first qualifying round. We went to Cork in Ireland and had ten days of pre-season training there to get ready.

“It was a big build-up, being a West Ham fan and coming through the Academy, I now had the possibility of playing for my Club in Europe, even if it was only the qualifying rounds. It was a massive thing for me.”

Josh Cullen in action against Lusitans

Unsurprisingly, given the Hammers had enjoyed a summer break of less than seven weeks between competitive fixtures, and the limited abilities of their opponents, the game was a somewhat slow-paced affair.

It took 40 minutes for West Ham to break the deadlock, doing so when Diafra Sakho acrobatically headed in Mauro Zarate’s right-wing cross from six yards.

And it was 2-0 before half-time when Morgan Amalfitano cut the ball back for the Senegalese striker to convert.

Another Essex boy, James Tomkins, added a third just before the hour-mark, and that was the cue for Westley to call for Cullen to end his warm-up and get ready for action.

“Terry told me at half-time that I’d be going on ten or 15 minutes after the break, so then the butterflies started and I was itching to get out there. When I got the shout to put my shirt on, it was something I had dreamt of my whole life.

“I got on for half-an-hour at the end and, as a boyhood West Ham fan, making my debut at Upton Park was an unbelievable feeling. We were 3-0 up at the time, but I wanted to come on and make an impression and do myself justice.

“I hit the crossbar as well, which I’ll always been a bit annoying about as it didn’t dip into the net, but it was great to be out there in front of a packed stadium. That’s a memory I’ll never forget.

“It was a special occasion. We had a game on 2 July and the team we were playing against hardly had any fans, so the stadium was literally full of 35,000 West Ham fans.

“Slaven was unveiled before the game and that was the first game of what was a cracking season for West Ham.”

I got on for half-an-hour at the end and, as a boyhood West Ham fan, making my debut at Upton Park was an unbelievable feeling

Josh Cullen

Cullen has since gone on to appear in the Premier League, captain the Republic of Ireland U21s, win Players’ Player of the Year for loan club Bradford City and face Juventus at London Stadium, but it will take something special to beat the night he wore a West Ham shirt for the first time.

“Everyone was there! Quite a few of my family are Season Ticket Holders anyway, then I had some other family members and friends and, of course, my missus.

“I didn’t have to run home like Mark Noble, thankfully. My family got the train down and then they all jumped in my car after the game for a lift home.

“That was strange for my Dad and my brother as we’d been standing on the other side of the gates to the Players’ Car Park not too many years before, trying to get autographs through the fence!

“Being West Ham fans all our lives, it was a strange feeling and a bit surreal having fans asking me to sign things, as I didn’t feel any different than anyone else.

“To get on for a decent amount of time, have a little run around and get on the ball at Upton Park was a special moment for sure.

“It was a great memory, the whole night, and if I could go back and relive it all again, I would.”