Republic of Ireland midfielder Josh Cullen has backed Keith Andrews' credentials as a "top coach" amid recent criticism aimed at Stephen Kenny's assistant manager.

In a recent interview with The Guardian following the release of his autobiography, ex-Ireland manager Martin O'Neill expressed irritation at some of the criticism he received while in charge of the Boys in Green.

Referencing Andrews' role as a pundit during that tenure, the former Celtic boss said he would be more receptive to criticism from ex-players of the calibre of his own former Ireland assistant Roy Keane rather than those he perceives to have not played at a similar level.

"I have a level of earned respect for that opinion but not a lower-leaguer who wouldn’t know what it is like to win a medal. And who is now finding how difficult it is to win football matches," O'Neill said.

But speaking as Kenny's Ireland prepare for friendlies against Norway and Malta on Thursday and Sunday respectively, Cullen was full of praise for Andrews' role within the current set-up.

"I can only speak on the dealings I've had with Keith personally and he's been fantastic around the place," he said.

"I think he's a top coach and still probably at the early stages of his career. The detail he gives us in training and meetings is brilliant and I think he's been a massive part of the progress the team's made over the last couple of years and I'm sure he'll have a big future as a coach as well."

Cullen's comments come as he was revealed as the FAI Senior International Player of the Year for 2022.

Keith Andrews shouts instructions during Tuesday's training session at the Aviva Stadium

He is the first central midfielder to win that particular award since Andrews did so back in 2012 and Cullen reiterated his backing of the Irish assistant.

"He said congratulations. Keith's been brilliant for me as well over the last couple of years like the manager showing trust in me to be a big part of the team and Keith's also backed the manager up in the same way and helped me develop my game," said the Burnley midfielder.

"So to follow in the footsteps and win the award like Keith did is brilliant and a big thanks to him for everything he's done over the last couple of years."

The award is reward for a consistent role at the heart of the Irish engine room during Kenny's two-year tenure, with the former Anderlecht player winning the bulk of his 20 caps under the current manager.

Cullen said he took particular pleasure in seeing the other names to have won the gong previously.

"It's a huge honour. I was only looking this morning at the list of everyone that's won the award and to get myself on the same list as plenty of Irish footballing legends is brilliant, so yeah it's a huge honour for me and my family and it took me by surprise last night. It was a very nice surprise to start off this week," he said.

"I feel like internationally and with my club over the last couple of years, I've improved as a player and worked hard at my game so to win an award as big as the one I have is obviously a great feeling and a nice reward to get off the back of the hard work I've been putting in."

Cullen presented with his 2021-2022 Republic of Ireland international cap by Paul McGrath

The friendlies against the Norwegians and Malta provide the last meaningful preparation before the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign begins next month and the draw made last month which sees Ireland pitched into a group featuring France and Netherlands is daunting on paper.

But Cullen cited the Irish squad's capacity to rise to the occasion against stronger sides as a note of encouragement.

"Obviously, it's a tough draw. I'd be lying if I sat up here and said it was an easy one," he said.

"It goes without saying, we could have got an easier draw but I think probably some of our best performances over the last couple of years have been against the bigger nations and they're games that, as a player and a lad growing up, they're the ones you want to be involved in and it's a draw we should be excited by.

"We've got two good friendlies here now to prepare for March and everyone's excited by the draw and looking forward to it."

With club football on hiatus due to the World Cup in Qatar, he added that he and his Ireland team-mates will be watching the French and Dutch closely in preparation for the challenges ahead.

"We'll tune in. The manager, he's going to the tournament but we'll be tuning in and watching their games I suppose and we know what we're going to be up against," he said.

"We know they've got quality players and they're going to be world class opposition but I think we can take good confidence from putting in good performances against world class teams over the last couple of years and we look forward to the games."

Watch the Republic of Ireland v Norway live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player on Thursday from 7pm with live radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1 Extra and follow a live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and RTÉ News app

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