Wednesday 16 October 2019

Too much too young: Are League of Ireland clubs risking the careers of their talented mid-teens?

It was fun initially, but are Bohemians and Bray Wanderers being careless with the use of their teenage stars?

Fourteen-year-old Evan Ferguson, son of former League of Ireland player Barry, holds off Lewis Baker during Bohemians’ friendly against Chelsea at Dalymount Park last night. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Fourteen-year-old Evan Ferguson, son of former League of Ireland player Barry, holds off Lewis Baker during Bohemians’ friendly against Chelsea at Dalymount Park last night. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Stephen Bennett

When Evan Ferguson made his senior debut for Bohemians as a substitute in a prestige friendly against Chelsea last July, Irish football was in unison.

The sight of the 14-year-old midfielder mixing it with Chelsea's millionaires was a sight to behold and, no doubt, a proud moment for his family.

He went one further and helped set up the equalising goal in a 1-1 draw - Frank Lampard's first game in charge of Chelsea - at Dalymount Park.

A couple of days later, St Patrick's Athletic got in on the act by bringing on a 15-year-old starlet - Glory Nzingo - against the same opposition.

Following the Chelsea game, Bohs boss Keith Long said of Ferguson: "It was no problem to him. Evan has got lots of attention from English clubs.

"He's obviously coming through St Kevin's Boys, he's in with the Bohemians U-15s and is doing really well.

"He's played with the U-17s. He's 14-years of age, and he comes off the bench and shows maturity beyond his years, and obviously quality as well. He almost scored, and his clever little step-over for Eric Molloy in the build-up to the goal as well.

"He's a big boy. He's 14 and he looks like a man but he's not, you can't get sucked into that. He's 14 and we're pleased to get him some minutes."

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Bray Wanderers' Andrew Moran in action for Ireland U16s in a friendly against Australia last January. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Fast forward to the cut and thrust of League of Ireland football last weekend.

Bohs, currently in an injury crisis, introduced Ferguson for his first league appearance - an important Premier Division clash with Derry City at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium.

The game finished 0-0, but the reaction this time to Ferguson's latest landmark was mixed to say the least.

Claims of irresponsibilty on Bohs' behalf towards a talented 14-year-old kid have been levelled.

If Ferguson goes on to cut out a decent career in the game, it means that by the age of 20 he may have six years of senior football under his belt.

Let's factor in inevitable injuries. Let's also factor in the unthinkable of a really serious injury. What if Ferguson picked up a nasty injury playing against Derry City last Friday night?

Admittedly, the chances were lessened given the amount of minutes Ferguson played, but it was still a gamble.

Should Derry players go easy on a lad of 14 playing men's football? That's not the way men's football is played. If you're out on the pitch then you're fair game, right?

And if you're good enough, you're old enough... but is 14 pushing the limits of this cliché?

Many ex-League of Ireland players have had their say on this on Twitter. Few agreed with Long's call to introduce Ferguson as a late substitute for Luke Wade-Slater.

In a clip (below) on Newstalk's Off The Ball show, former Ireland international Stephen Elliott was against it. Having played at the top level in England and Scotland, Elliott should know a thing or two about this.

Shouldn't Bohemians be protecting a player who must have serious talent if he's breaking into the first team at 14?

Also, why are Bohs so hard up for first team players that they have to name a 14-year-old in their squad in the first place?

The name Eamonn Collins sprung up as the counter-argument to this.

Collins, as you might recall, became the youngest player to play in English professional football when he lined out for Alan Ball's Blackpool side in an Anglo-Scottish Cup quarter-final first-leg tie against Kilmarnock back in 1980, six weeks before his 15th birthday.

Collins recalled: "That Monday I was just back to my normal jobs, getting all the coaches' kit ready, cleaning the players' boots.

"From eight till ten, I did all my jobs. After that I was going out to train with the youth team and some of the reserves. Then the first team coach, Ted MacDougall, came over to me and said, 'Eamonn, you're training with the first team today'.

"I honestly thought it was a wind-up. They were playing a lot of practical jokes on me at the time, with me having just arrived over from Ireland at 14. Doing a lot of silly stuff.

"So I just kept on walking over towards the youth team. Then Alan Ball shouted across, 'Come over Eamonn, you're training with us'. Only then did I realise it was serious."

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Eamonn Collins, pictured here in his role as St Patrick's Athletic manager back in 2004

Dubliner Collins enjoyed a lengthy career in England playing with Blackpool, Southampton, Portsmouth, Exeter, Gillingham and Colchester United.

However, 16 years after that debut against Kilmarnock, Collins' playing career finished at a team from Devon called Elmore, who play in the South West Peninsula League. He was just 30 years old.

Despite playing only a few minutes of last Friday's clash with Derry, Ferguson's appearance made the headlines.

There was another, similar, event at the Carlisle Grounds a month ago when Andrew Moran became the youngest player to line out for Bray Wanderers at just 15 years and 307 days old.

Moran came on as a 61st minute substitute in Bray's First Division win over Drogtheda United last Saturday evening, while the club also prudly announced that their Under-17 top scorer Darragh Lynch made his first team debut in the same game.

Both Bohemians and Bray Wanderers stand to make good money if these players reach their true potential. As cash-strapped League of Ireland clubs try to keep their heads above troubling financial waters, no good offered will be refused.

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Gavin Bazunu: The €500,000 man. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

As was the case when Shamrock Rovers sold then 16-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu to Manchester City in a €500,000 deal last year.

Should players so young be even near a club's senior team? Here's what the FAI rulebook says about a player's age eligibility.

"In all under-age competitions under the jurisdiction of the Association and its affiliates, age eligibility shall be calculated from January 1st of the season in which the competition finishes."

So, basically, Evan Ferguson should really be playing for Bohemians-St Kevin's Boys in the Under-15 League of Ireland.

There are also U17s and U19s leagues for talented kids like him and maybe this is where Ferguson's immediate future lies.

That, at least, was the plan when the FAI introduced these leagues in the first place.

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