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The 17-year-old Irish striker with the world at his feet

Ireland U21 player Evan Ferguson is set for two of the biggest games of his career against Israel.

Evan Ferguson pictured at a recent Ireland media day.
Evan Ferguson pictured at a recent Ireland media day.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Updated Thu 8:32 AM

IT’S HARD to believe Evan Ferguson is still only 17.

The Ireland U21 striker’s name will have been on the radar of many Irish football fans for years now.

In 2019, aged 14, the youngster made a memorable cameo for Bohemians in a friendly against Chelsea as it swiftly became apparent the Dublin club had a player of significant potential on their hands.

“It’s a lot different coming into a men’s dressing room, you’re going into fans,” Ferguson says, recalling that day. “That was the first time with fans so it’s sort of like you’re walking out on the pitch and you’re looking around and it’s completely different to schoolboy football. It all depends on the result, it doesn’t matter if you play well, you play bad, it’s all about winning at the end of the day. It’s a different mentality.

“I wouldn’t say it was daunting, I sort of enjoyed it, because there was no one else really doing it. I was still in school and playing the game that night, it was weird.”

And what was the reaction of his school friends from Coláiste na hInse in Laytown when they saw him unexpectedly taking to the field against a Frank Lampard-managed side?

“I think it sort of blew up a little bit. I didn’t know I was going to play, I knew I was on the bench but I didn’t know if I was going to come on or this, that or whatever. It was all sort of… Everyone knew about it at the time.” 

Since then, Ferguson’s profile has risen further. He made a handful of League of Ireland appearances before completing a move to Brighton in January 2021.

“That’s all you think about growing up, imagine playing in the Premier League, imagine being in that lifestyle, that different type of world, I feel like I have always wanted to do it and now I am here I want to push on and keep doing it.”

Already, the Meath native has made five senior appearances under his belt for the Seagulls, including a Premier League debut against Burnley last season and his first goal for the club last month during a 3-0 EFL Cup win over Forest Green.

Yet the majority of his performances so far have come at U23 level and his form has been good, scoring a first hat-trick for the club in a win over Leicester earlier this month.

Next on the agenda is a two-legged playoff clash against Israel, as Jim Crawford’s side attempt to become the first Irish team to qualify for a major tournament at U21 level.

“I’ve been doing well [at Brighton],” he says. “I went back in and just still training hard, working hard. I’ve been training with the first team and playing some games with the 23s and I played in the Carabao Cup, so I feel sharp at the minute, I feel good.

“I think it’s just day in, day out working. I wouldn’t look back and see myself really kicking on, but I feel like I have been improving.”

Ferguson is not the only highly promising youngster on the books at Brighton, with 18-year-old midfielder Andrew Moran recently signing a new three-year contract at the club.

“Yeah, Andy’s doing very well for himself as well. To be fair, it’s a good place for us because there are a lot of Irish and we’ve been over there a while now. So we’re settled in, Andy and I have a good relationship with each other, so it’s good.”

Ferguson has frequently been on the bench for Brighton in the Premier League but is invariably held in reserve, given the many talented players on their books and the fact that they currently sit fourth in the table.

Yet despite all this competition, the youngster remains determined to make that first-team breakthrough sooner rather than later and is far from content with his status as an unused sub.

“I think it would be frustrating for anyone if you’re on the bench week in, week out and not getting on. As a player, that’s how everyone would be, so it’s not like you’re happy, it’s frustration because you aren’t getting the minutes that you want to be getting.”

What happens next at the Seagulls is less than certain. Manager Graham Potter has just left to take over at Chelsea, while Italian Roberto De Zerbi has been announced as his successor.

“He was a good manager, he was good to me, but I think an opportunity like that, he can’t really turn it down,” Ferguson says of Potter, adding that he has yet to speak with the new manager.

“It’s not changed that much [at Brighton], it’s just that he’s gone and the 23s manager has [temporarily] stepped up to the first team. It was sort of the same old stuff, really, because there haven’t been any games, so there hasn’t really been that much change.

“Obviously we got the new manager in the other day, so let’s see now what happens.”

And what sort of impact will De Zerbi’s arrival at the club have on Ferguson personally?

“He’ll come in and I’d say he’ll have his own plan, so I’m not sure what will happen now, to be honest.”

Asked whether he has considered a loan move to get more senior football under his belt, the player adds: “At the start of pre-season, I was going to stick around. I had a chat with them and they said they wanted me around for pre-season at the start and see what happens from there.

“I’m still there at the minute and we’ll see what happens.

“I feel like I’m going in the right direction. Just trying to get more game-time in and around the first team, that would be my next thing, just to try to get more minutes.” 

Ferguson is far from the only prodigiously young footballer currently on the periphery of senior football.

Last weekend, 15-year-old Arsenal starlet Ethan Nwaneri became the Premier League’s youngest ever footballer while Glenavon’s Christopher Atherton, aged 13 years and 329 days, recently became the youngest ever senior player to line out in the UK.

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Unsurprisingly given that he has been in a similar boat, the Irish starlet sees no issue with blooding footballers at such a young age.

“I’d imagine they are in training with the first team a bit, I don’t think they get thrown straight on the bench, they’d be used to the environment. I’d say it has gone through the club, the parents and that. At the end of the day, it’s up to the kid, if he feels he’d be able to do it, I don’t see an issue with it.

“It’s up to them at the end of the day, if he’s good enough there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be able to [play].”

Of course, a strong role model is key to navigating this taxing process and Ferguson’s father Barry, an ex-footballer himself who had stints at Coventry, Longford and Bohs among others, is well placed to offer invaluable advice. 

“He was good with me growing up, he wouldn’t put too much pressure on me, really, say ‘you have to do this or that’. If I wanted anything or needed to chat to him he’d be there but I wouldn’t say there is that much pressure, I don’t think anyone really expects anything of a young kid playing in that game — if you do it, it’s more of a bonus.”

Nonetheless, great expectations have been placed on Ferguson’s shoulders. The teen started the last Ireland U21 match — a disappointing 4-1 loss away to Italy — but he is hoping he did enough to retain his starting spot for the crucial upcoming playoff matches against Israel.

Nothing is guaranteed, however, with Crawford rotating his forwards during the qualifying campaign, and the likes of Mipo Odubeko and Joshua Kayode also getting game time up top.

“We’ll see what happens during training, Obviously it’s hard competition out there, everyone’s at it every day and the other boys are good players, so it’s going to be hard.

“Hopefully I’ll just be at it in training this week and see what happens.”

Aaron Connolly too, who has eight senior caps and who Ferguson knows well from their time together at Brighton, could be in line to feature.

“We all know what he brings to the squad, he’s quick and fast,” he adds. “Jim picked him for a reason and it’s good to see Aaron back in the squad, he will bring a good bit to this team.”

And of course, such strong competition bodes well with the Irish team on the verge of a historic achievement.

“It would just be a proud moment for all of us if we did do it. It’s obviously going to be hard now to do that, but I think we’ll give ourselves a good chance and it will be well worth it if we do.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy  / reports from Abbotstown

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