Tuesday 21 May 2019

Travers' journey from tee box to penalty box


Mark Travers made his Premier League debut for Bournemouth last weekend. Photo: Getty
Mark Travers made his Premier League debut for Bournemouth last weekend. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Every elite athlete has a sliding doors moment. If Mark Travers' career had gone in a different path, he could have been walking the fairway with a golf club in his hand this weekend. Or playing football somewhere as a central midfielder.

Instead, the recognition that he had the attributes to become a goalkeeper changed the course of his life.

Tomorrow, he's tipped for a second Premier League start between the sticks with Bournemouth, a fitting reward for a superb display on his surprise debut against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.

The 19-year-old from Maynooth became the first teenage netminder to be involved at English top flight level since Joe Hart in 2006 and he justified his inclusion by keeping a clean sheet in a man of the match display against the Champions League finalists.

His performance was a source of pride to the people who have shaped his development, most notably at Lucan United where the 'gangly' midfielder was converted into a shot stopper with a desire to learn about the nuances of that position.

If he didn't convert, then it's possible he would have ended up pursuing his other sporting passion.

Travers was a talented golfer playing out of Carton House, teeing up at representative level for his club and competing around the country in Irish Boys' events. The coaches at all of his clubs were aware he could easily have thrived in that endeavour.

His aptitude for football won the day, however, with Lucan mentors influential in his decision to revert from a midfield role to a new post between the sticks.

In March, after his shock call into Mick McCarthy's first Ireland squad, Travers fondly recalled diving around on the green in his estate to keep out shots and developing a love for his position.

His Lucan team contained another high-profile export, the Liverpool defender Conor Masterson, who played in a team that was managed by Conor's father Ciaran.

Masterson was born in 1998, whereas Travers was 1999, but he was bumped up to play in goal for the older team.

"Mark was a lean, tall midfielder who was agile and the decision was made to put him in goal," explained Ciaran earlier this week.

"He was excellent outfield too. He was always talented. It wasn't that he was technically deficient at all. He was just a bit gangly due to his growth, he would sometimes struggle to move the ball properly. He needed some work.

"But Mark always applied himself very well. He epitomised application. And when the decision was made to put him into goal, you could see that he had all the attributes for it."

Lucan had an educated reason to believe that he would grow into the role. His parents Mick and Louise were both tall so he was always likely to tick the physical boxes.

But it was his mindset that also marked him out. "Mark is intelligent, he listens, and he picks up things," said John Doyle, a long-serving member of the Lucan set-up.

"People like him. You'd go a long way to find someone that doesn't like him. He would ask questions and look for information."

"Physically, he had a good frame," added Masterson. "And he had a good frame of mind."

Travers' father was also actively involved with the running of the Lucan team and encouraged his son's desire to learn.

The club had invited in Brendan Kennedy, the brother of ex-Irish international Mark, to work with their goalkeepers every Monday night. Mick duly arranged for Kennedy to do some one-to-one work with the budding goalie and that accelerated his development.

When the 1998 group reached U16 level, a number of them went their separate ways, with Masterson making his switch to Liverpool.

Travers opted to stay at U16 level for another year by moving to Cherry Orchard, where he linked up with ex-League of Ireland defender Aidan Price, who then brought the player with him to Shamrock Rovers for a short season at U17 level. There was an offer to go to Crystal Palace in the intervening period that he rejected.

"His potential was obvious," said Price, who recalls big saves Travers made in an U17 league final win over St Patrick's Athletic. "It was his attitude that stood out more than anything else. He had no doubt in his mind about his ability so he always responded well to any mistakes that he made.

"Mark was always positive and trusted himself. The best part of last Saturday for me was when he came out of his box in the first half to clear an attack with a header. We saw a lot of that with us. He wasn't afraid to commit to a decision and be positive, even if some people will always criticise a goalkeeper if it goes wrong. He was never one to take a step back. His decision making was always good."

Bournemouth have challenged him to become a very modern goalkeeper, a completely different skillset to what might have been required at the start of the Premier League era when experienced number ones were still coping with the end of the passback rule that allowed them to pick up anything which came their way.

Today's players need to be comfortable enough to slot into a keep ball session with the rest of the squad.

"His kicking has improved massively," said Price.

Travers has previously acknowledged that the biggest challenge he faced when moving to Bournemouth was learning to deal with the ball at his feet.

"They try to play out as much as possible," the youngster said in March, discussing the ethos that runs down to their academy sides.

"It's about working with the feet and playing out from the back. It's definitely a part of my game that's come on in the last few years."

Doyle recalls sessions where they also worked on his footwork in general, an area that improved over time. "The natural ability was always there," Doyle stressed. "He just identified what he needed to work hard on."

The showreel from the Spurs match will always be dominated by the acrobatic saves. In truth, some of those were quite routine for a goalkeeper with the ability to be trusted at that level.

His composure was striking. Yet one memory that also stood out for observers aware of his journey, was a first half moment where Spurs pressed up when he was in possession, and he calmly threaded a pass along the ground through his own penalty area to take his team out of trouble.

Masterson is convinced that Travers will go far in the game and is confident about Ireland's options in the position.

His son's current housemate in Liverpool is Cork's Caoimhin Kelleher, Jurgen Klopp's third choice, who was pictured on the pitch at Anfield on Tuesday celebrating with the rest of the squad.

In this department, at least, it would appear that Irish football is in safe hands.

Irish Independent

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