Tuesday 23 October 2018

The young Irish goalkeeper with world in his hands

Willingness to learn has marked out City-bound Bazunu

Gavin Bazunu saves a penalty from Cork City’s Kieran Sadlier. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Gavin Bazunu saves a penalty from Cork City’s Kieran Sadlier. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was a relatively small crowd in Tallaght for last Tuesday night's U17 international between Ireland and Turkey.

Friends and family of the players involved made most of the noise, while the rest of the attendance was largely comprised of recognisable faces from the football community. Martin O'Neill showed up too.

The Dubliner on duty for Ireland’s U-16s. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The Dubliner on duty for Ireland’s U-16s. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Still, when home goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu made the mistake of underhitting a pass in the first half, and putting his defence in trouble as a consequence, one wag still made a bit of a crack about Manchester City's judgment. It was only a joke, and the mood around the ground was positive as the Shamrock Rovers netminder impressed in a 3-0 success. His willingness to try and play out from the back will certainly be tested in his future workplace.

It's unfair to place expectation on a bunch of kids born in 2002, most of whom are still growing and trying to find their way in the football world. But there were a lot of eyes on Bazunu because of his status as a boy that has already made a mark in the men's game.

Shamrock Rovers have refused to confirm that Bazunu is on his way to City next year in a deal worth close to €500,000 but there is no expectation that the proposed transfer will collapse.

Bazunu's emergence has been one of the stories of the Irish football year, with his surprise breakthrough into the Rovers side for a run of league games and a Europa League tie with AIK Solna bringing representatives from elite clubs in England and beyond to these shores. Ultimately, the Premier League champions made the strongest play.

The story has captured attention because it has helped to allay fears that top clubs from across the water have stopped thinking about Ireland as a viable source of talent.

What is fascinating about Bazunu's emergence is that he has not necessarily come down the traditional route; the Firhouse youngster has made his way through the ranks with Shamrock Rovers and is an advertisement for their burgeoning academy.

Stephen Bradley's first-team squad is packed with youngsters, but the majority were developed in the early stages by other schoolboy nurseries.

Bazunu is very much one of their own and the fee they will accrue for his services will help in their attempts to sell the club as the place to be.

They identified Bazunu as a fit for their arrangement with fee-paying secondary school Ashfield College, which has allowed the player to train full-time while studying for his Leaving Cert.

He is keen to finish his studies and it's likely that he will stay at home until next summer, although it's possible that he will spend some days at City once he is eligible to sign a pro contract there next February when he turns 17. The details have to be worked out, but there is no dispute about the player's ability.

Indeed, it's plausible that the son of a Nigerian father and Irish mother is just a unique talent rather than an advertisement for any model.

The first-team players at Rovers knew from the outset they had a potential star in their ranks. Defender Luke Byrne also helps to coach Damien Duff's U15 side and Bazunu was part of their group last year before he was promoted four years out of his generation to play for the U19 side.

Mature

"I was struck by how much more mature he was than the other kids," says Byrne. "The next time I saw him he was in with us in the first team. What stood out was how confident he was and just how much his head was screwed on - that marked him out straight away as not being normal.

"He was different to other kids. He'd come to away games, do the warm-ups, sit with the goalkeeping coach on the bus analysing his games on the laptop. I've seen him nitpicking and giving out about himself standing two steps to the left or the right."

That attention to detail followed through to his first-team breakthrough. Bazunu really announced himself with a penalty save in a clean sheet against Cork City in July. On the trip down, he had requested footage of City penalty taker Kieran Sadlier in action.

"He's only 16," enthuses Byrne. "It's not like he's been around the game for ages. That was on him. It shows the way he is thinking about the game and preparing."

On another occasion, the older Rovers pros were sitting in the dressing room on a Monday morning discussing a Premier League game when the rookie piped up to explain exactly where a goalkeeper had gone wrong.

"He went through the technique," explains Byrne. "And that was another lightbulb moment where you're thinking this kid is so mature.

"You combine that with his physical attributes and the fact he's so comfortable on the ball off both feet - which you can put down to the fact he played outfield when he was younger for a couple of seasons - and he's just not a normal 16-year-old."

Bazunu was always adamant that he wanted to play first team football at home before emigrating. He will enter a headspinning environment, with Manchester City paying their young players well. Dubliner Michael Daly was there a decade ago and spoke of the different scales within his development group, telling an anecdote about Daniel Sturridge talking about demanding £30,000-a-week while his team-mates were on a couple of hundred quid.

Young pros at City now earn a minimum of £150,000 per year which is a significant headstart in life. But there is no expectation that Bazunu's focus will be distracted by what's coming down the tracks.

He's a bright student and the Leaving Cert plan is not just ticking a box; the feeling is that he will do well too. That said, there's strong confidence that he won't be needing those results to make a living.

"I wouldn't like to heap pressure on the kid but he's someone who can deal with that," says Byrne. "He's seeing his name in the press almost every day already.

"There's never been any question about Gav progressing. I'd be quite close to him and I've no problem with saying that he's going to be a full Republic of Ireland international."

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