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Gavin Bazunu’s maturity and temperament key to stunning rise to international prominence

Daniel McDonnell

Young Sportstar of the Year: Gavin Bazunu


Gavin Bazunu’s performances for Ireland helped him to hold off some major competition to win the Irish Independent Young Sportstar of the Year award. Photo: Sportsfile

Gavin Bazunu’s performances for Ireland helped him to hold off some major competition to win the Irish Independent Young Sportstar of the Year award. Photo: Sportsfile

Gavin Bazunu’s performances for Ireland helped him to hold off some major competition to win the Irish Independent Young Sportstar of the Year award. Photo: Sportsfile

The curious thing about Gavin Bazunu’s rise to prominence in 2021 is that two enduring memories which proved he was no ordinary teenager came in matches that ultimately ended in Irish defeats.

In the March reverse at the hands of Luxembourg, a dark night for Stephen Kenny and his dressing room, the only positive aspect of an embarrassing defeat in a surreal closed doors atmosphere was the confidence of the 19-year-old barking out instructions on his senior international debut. Bazunu modestly says that the lack of fans may have helped him to settle, but the handful of media, officials and stewards present could sense this was a natural demeanour.

Fast forward six months to September, and the Dubliner was stood between the sticks, focusing his mind ahead of facing a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty with a VAR delay adding tension.

The fact that an errant short pass from Bazunu had created the spot kick opportunity would have demoralised senior pros, never mind a comparative rookie playing the biggest match of his life.

Bazunu guessed right to save Ronaldo’s penalty and while the Manchester United star would break Irish hearts and a world record with his late brace, this could be remembered as a turning point of the Kenny era. An early concession in Faro might have set the autumn on a different course.

Six days later, Bazunu was making stop after stop to deny Serbia and September was saved – he stresses that Portugal away wasn’t a great display compared to what followed yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was an important bridge.

Kenny has been very good for Bazunu, but there’s no doubt that Bazunu has also been very good for Kenny. Caoimhín Kelleher’s assured contribution to Liverpool’s recent draw with Chelsea and Mark Travers’ impressive performances for Bournemouth are incredibly encouraging.

Yet it’s very difficult to see Bazunu – who started 2021 behind Darren Randolph, Kelleher and Travers – sitting on the bench in a meaningful Irish game in the foreseeable future.

The Irish public might have been surprised by his sudden elevation, but there was no sense of shock at Shamrock Rovers.

In some ways, they’d watched his story before. Bazunu was just 16 when under-pressure Stephen Bradley pitched him into his side in the summer of 2018, confident the kid was ready.

The academy product flourished, and a penalty to deny then Cork star Kieran Sadlier in front of a packed Turner’s Cross was a local version of what was to come on the bigger stage.

At club level, Bazunu has taken the approach that learning on the job is the right step and there were rough patches at Rochdale before a relocation to Portsmouth for this season. His performances there have won praise and it seems inevitable that his parent club Manchester City will send him out to a higher level next term.

Whatever happens, Bazunu will stay grounded. Attendees at December’s PFA Ireland awards – where Bazunu kicked off his award-winning winter – were bowled over by a speech by the player’s mother Cara, which offered insight into her steadying influence.

And, speaking to the Irish Independent after becoming the first footballer to win this gong, Bazunu referenced how being around the Rovers first team dressing room at 14 and 15 helped to shape his mindset.

Ability is what gets a player noticed, yet when Bazunu came into the Irish senior squad for the first time, elder dressing room members were struck by how he carried himself. It can be tempting to generalise the character of well-paid young footballers, but listening to the netminder speak of his fondness for reading and keeping on top of sports psychology and science in his spare time exposes the folly of that.

There is maturity beyond his years, recognition of the road he has travelled to this point and an awareness of what is necessary to get to the next level. His rise will continue.

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