Despite an understandable desire to downplay the breakthrough of Evan Ferguson at Brighton, Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny knew the first media huddle of 2023 would focus on the 18-year-old.
Since Ferguson’s neat finish against Arsenal on New Year’s Eve, he has netted three goals in 303 Premier League minutes. Adam Idah needed treble that time to score once for Norwich City. Aaron Connolly took 24 top flight appearances to bag three goals.
In 1999, a 19-year-old Robbie Keane only required 207 minutes to register three times for Coventry City, but who is comparing?
Ferguson has also scored in both cup competitions, most recently last Tuesday to knock Stoke City out of the FA Cup. That tap-in earned a post-match hug from Stoke’s first team coach John O’Shea, who is about to start double-jobbing as Ireland’s new trainer.
More impressive than the goals is the teenager’s ability to live among seasoned international defenders like Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté, who should reappear when France come to Dublin on March 27th, 72 hours after Didier Deschamps’s side launch their European Championships qualification campaign against The Netherlands in Paris.
“He’s played against him [Konaté] twice, and he’s beaten [Liverpool] twice,” said Kenny. “I was at the game in Brighton when he was a victim of a very bad tackle [by Fabinho] and went off injured.
“What Evan does is he makes the game looks simple. He takes the ball in, he protects it very well, he lays it off, he has good movement in the box, he has good ability to score goals with good movement and good finishing.
“He has the ability to score goals, he scores headed goals which nowadays forwards are not as prolific at scoring headed goals – but he scores headed goals and you know he’s good in the air.
“He scores goals in the box, he’s got good intelligent movement, he doesn’t complicate it, he’s not someone who dribbles at people at pace. He has good awareness and is a good finisher.
“But it’s early days for him and we’re still learning about him. He’s just come through Brighton’s system, and Bohs, and into the Brighton first team quicker than we could have anticipated.”
Ferguson’s arrival is no surprise to anyone who witnessed Bohemians introducing a tall, skinny 14-year-old against Chelsea in July 2019.
Kenny being Kenny, question one about this Irish sporting meteorite prompted a listing of every other striker at his disposal.
Idah came in for repeated mentions, now that the 22-year-old is fit and leading the line as Norwich push for promotion. Michael Obafemi, scoring for Burnley, named. Chiedozie Ogbene, flying at Rotherham, mentioned. Troy Parrott, named. Even Will Keane hung in there, as the Irish management keeps tabs on James McClean at Wigan Athletic.
“Aaron Connolly is injured as well,” said Kenny. “Evan, we’re still learning about Evan, he’s burst onto the scene, a meteoric rise really but the profile of the forwards now is different to what we had. That makes us quite a potent team, I think.”
Thereafter, the 51-year-old Dubliner sat into a low block in the Castleknock Hotel, inviting the football correspondents to do their worst. What everyone wants to know is how Kenny gets two from Ferguson, Idah, Parrott and Obafemi on the pitch together this year.
“There are good options there. Certainly, they can definitely play together.”
More information was forthcoming on Mikey Johnston declaring for Ireland over Scotland, with the 23-year-old Celtic winger, currently on loan to Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes, to be called up pending Fifa clearance.
“Mikey has attributes that, to be honest, we probably don’t have in the squad,” admitted Kenny. “A winger of that ilk; a right-footed left winger who can dribble and take people inside or outside and has a good final pass . . . I expect him to be important and very much be involved in the campaign ahead.”
Others have no such guarantee. Matt Doherty’s zero minutes since moving from Tottenham to Atlético Madrid, Caoimhín Kelleher interminably benched at Liverpool and Shane Duffy’s exile in Fulham, may force Kenny to look elsewhere.
Seámus Coleman has been an ever-present in Everton’s fight to avoid relegation, same goes for Gavin Bazunu at Southampton, while Andrew Omobamidele is attracting interest from Nottingham Forest should Norwich fail to reclaim Premier League status.
“Matt Doherty’s situation was very unusual. He was in the Spurs team the previous week and he loved it there. The strong fitness regime suited him. He needs that and he had a lot of friends there.
“Then came the opportunity of joining Atlético. When you’re been given that option and someone else in your position is coming in, you grasp it. Atlético is such a brilliant club in terms of recent history and being such a big club.
“The issue is obviously the Argentina right-back [Nahuel] Molina is first-choice. He has just won the World Cup. Matt needs games and we are hoping he gets games, because he has been very good for us and he is an important player.”
Kenny also laid out plans to avoid a repeat of Ireland’s abysmal performance in Yerevan last June, losing 1-0 to Armenia, by holding two training camps, in England and Antalya, Turkey ahead of the Euros qualifier in Greece on June 16th.
“That was a big learning curve for us last year, with the six-week break between the end of the championship and game in Armenia. I have requested an [non-capped] international game in Antalya the week before we play Greece. We’ve to take what we learned last year and make sure we do better, make sure we improve.”