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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020

Rovers posters in his Man City dorm, and a farewell Christy Moore concert: Getting to know Gavin Bazunu

A year to the day since arriving in Manchester from Shamrock Rovers, the 17-year-old tells David Sneyd about a life-changing 12 months.

Bazunu: "Believing this is where I deserve to be is important.”
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

EVERYTHING WAS AGREED and the plans in place.

Until they weren’t.

In October 2018, Shamrock Rovers confirmed that they had reached a pre-contract agreement with Manchester City for the sale of 16-year-old goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.

It was a milestone moment for the League of Ireland club, the first player from the Hoops’ burgeoning academy – formed in 2016 – to move across the water.

Rovers released a 559-word statement on their website heralding the deal as “the biggest transfer by an Irish club in the professional era”, adding how it was “a defining moment for our club and for Irish football”, seemingly eclipsing the €500,000 Sunderland paid Cork City for striker Roy O’Donovan in 2007.

Bazunu had also made his first-team debut by this point when, aged 16 years and 109 days, he became the youngest player in Rovers’ history.

He kept a clean sheet against Bray Wanderers – his mother Cara still has the ticket as a memento – and then three more in the rest of his Premier Division appearances, including a penalty save from former Ireland U21 international Kieran Sadlier away to Cork City.

“That was a heart-stopping moment,” Cara admits. “That was probably one of the scariest moments I’ve had watching him play.”

Gavin Bazunu is not someone you have to worry about.

It is New Year’s Eve when he and his mother welcome The42 to their home in Firhouse, at the foothills of the Dublin mountains. He will return to Manchester for the rest of the season later this week after two brief visits home in the build up to Christmas and then after St Stephen’s Day.

An hour in the sitting room and you quickly realise why everything has happened so quickly for him. Bazunu doesn’t turn 18 until next month but speaks with an authority and confidence that is reassuring rather than misplaced.

He is a young man whom, despite being part of a generation labelled as house mice, played football with his friends every day during school breaks and then on the green behind his house “until it got dark”.

He now keeps in touch with his younger brother Todd (a goalkeeper with Rovers’ U13s) primarily through PlayStation when they play FIFA or Fortnite.

At City he will continue his education this year with an online degree course in Sports Science from Manchester Metropolitan University.

“That side of things will be important to have to fall back but I want to be a footballer. I will make sure I don’t have any regrets because I will work hard every single day and take in every bit of advice I can to make sure I give myself the best chance of becoming a footballer,” he continues, pointedly.

And you believe him.

There is nothing brash or cocky, just a quiet determination which pierces through the conversation. Bazunu is a leader, not a follower.

“Every time I’ve had to take a step up, I’ve thought about it logically and tried to break it down. It is just another football match, 11 v 11. It’s the same pitch, the same game. The only difference is the level.

“Before games, listening to certain types of music helps me to calm down and to think straight. I try not to get too emotional before games and think logically. If you get too emotional it can cloud your mind and that won’t help when you need to play off instinct.

“You will have information that can be used at certain moments but you still play off instinct. In the days leading up to the game I will visualise things, I try to stay calm and not get too hyped too early. It’s so important to stay level-headed but you have to have that aggression and the ability to communicate clearly to your defenders. They need trust and belief in you.

“You have to speak with some players differently to others. Not everyone reacts the same to instructions you give them. You have to be able to command as a goalkeeper, earn the trust of those in front of you, but also stay cool and collected to make difficult decisions at times.

“If I am nervous, I will have music to slow my heart rate down before games. I know the energy is in there but it’s about releasing it at the right time.”

gavin-bazunu-saves-a-penalty-from-kieran-sadlier Bazunu saves a penalty from Kieran Sadlier. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Along with his impressive League of Ireland displays, two commanding performances against AIK Stockholm in the Europa League qualifiers meant Bazunu’s stock had risen to such an extent that City felt compelled to act.

Their academy director, former Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United winger Jason Wilcox, oversaw the dealings. Bazunu and Cara were invited over to visit the sprawling £200 million Etihad Campus in August 2018, also taking in City’s 6-1 thrashing of Huddersfield Town.

“That was the first time I’d been to a Premier League game,” the teenager admits. “I’d never had the opportunity to go to one before that.”

His father, who is still a part of his life but lives elsewhere, is a Manchester United fan, Bazunu was that way inclined too as a kid but had a far greater grá for Rovers. Indeed, in his dorm on site at City’s training centre he has a Hoops calendar hanging on his wall along with the team poster he was part of.

“I dreamed of being in that picture when I was growing up and it makes it feel like home to have that with me in Manchester.”

There are also some of his Ireland jerseys and his latest Christmas present, an Ireland flag with the Proclamation of the Republic printed on it.

“That is all important to me,” he explains. “It’s something to be proud of, it makes you feel connected to home.”

Music is another element of his Irishness. “Some of the Spanish lads don’t like it and complain when he plays the ballads,” Cara laughs.

“Christy Moore,” Bazunu beams. “The Dubliners, The Fureys, The Wolfe Tones, they all came out even more when I moved because when you leave you cling on to everything you have back here. It was Stephen Rice and Pat Flynn who got me into all of that music because that would be on the bus with Rovers when I was younger.”

It has brought him and his mother closer together, too. “I was into the ballads and used to always play them when I was younger,” Cara explains. “I stopped and didn’t really play them around the kids so when Gavin discovered them and started playing them around the house again it brought it all back, it brought them back into my life again.”

A Christy Moore gig in Vicar Street in the week before Bazunu left for England was the perfect farewell. “Gavin looked around and was joking because he was the youngest person there. He was tall enough to get away with it if it was over 18s,” Cara smiles.

“It was lovely to be able to do it together, the two of us. It was an amazing experience because I had never seen him live and neither had Gavin. It was something special for us. It wasn’t one of us doing it for the sake of the other, it was something for us both to enjoy.”

“It has stayed with me, I won’t forget that,” Bazunu adds.

It was the perfect send off for an astonishing rise that almost didn’t happen in the 12 months since.

Once Bazunu signed his pre-contract with City in late 2018, it was agreed that he could remain at home until the summer of 2019, training full-time with Rovers while continuing his Leaving Certificate year at Ashfield College, the private school in south Dublin which the League of Ireland club have a tie-up with.

And then it all changed so quickly.

The timeline on his move to Manchester was brought forward to last January as City, Rovers and Bazunu worked out a schedule whereby he could continue to study his Leaving Cert subjects – English, Irish, Maths, Geography, Classical Studies and Home Economics – with a private tutor while returning to Ashfield every fortnight for various assessments.

Discussions with City’s head of education alleviated any fears Cara had that her son’s education would be railroaded. “It was like he was going off to college with the facilities they have. Even the fact they have a head of education is quite amazing.”

Everything seems to have happened in the blink of an eye for Bazunu, yet this is a teenager who is not blinded by the hype, or to the realities of the life he is preparing for.

“Sometimes, seeing the pitches and the facilities, you’re thinking some of the other lads don’t know how lucky they have it. To have these facilities, these coaches, to just be able to work in that environment.

“I take a step back and say: ‘This is my job now’. The big thing for me is trying to get that balance, being grateful for the position I’m in now, saying ‘Wow, this is amazing’ but realising that I deserve to be here.

“I’m here for a reason. Like the other footballers there, they’re elite players. So yeah, it is amazing, but believing this is where I deserve to be is important.”

gavin-bazunu "The camps with Ireland have been really enjoyable, they have been memorable." Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Bazunu turns 18 next month and only became a dedicated goalkeeper for Rovers at U14 level. That is when things began to get serious. Within a year he was training with Stephen Bradley’s first-team, a year after that he made his debut, and now we are at the point where he has been in Manchester a full 12 months.

His progress hasn’t stopped.

In that time he has been promoted from the U18 dressing room to the Elite Development Squad (U23s), and was brought on the first-team’s pre-season tour of Asia in the summer by manager Pep Guardiola after a week of training under the Catalan.

“Seeing the passion and intensity he has. He has an unbelievable football brain and is a tactical genius. The passion he shows during training, it’s like he’s still a player,” Bazunu adds. “He gets around the pitch roaring instructions.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s all about information, he’s not roaring for the sake of it, there is always a reason. It’s always information for how to win the next game or to improve as a player.”

Bazunu travelled with Guardiola’s squad for their Premier League game with Southampton earlier this season and for the Carabao Cup quarter final win over Oxford United last month.

He is still housed on the academy side of the training centre but, as a member of the EDS squad, his schedule must match the first team in case he is required.

“It always seems to be last minute, we could get a text 30 or 40 minutes before training saying we are needed with them. The best way to learn is by watching them up close. There is an indoor pitch in the middle of the building that they train on before games and whenever I can I will always try catch a glimpse of what they do. From a technical point of view, I still have a good bit to go in terms of how they want a Man City goalkeeper to play.”

Giant strides with Ireland have also been made, Stephen Kenny parachuting Bazunu into the U21 squad for the European Championship qualifiers after impressing during the U17 Euros on home soil. “It’s comforting to have his trust. The camps with Ireland have been really enjoyable, they have been memorable. It’s been an honour really to just be a part of it.”

None of this progress would have been made had the moving date not been brought forward. “I felt ready, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I wasn’t nervous. I was more excited to see what would happen,” Bazunu recalls.

“When I went over there was huge interest and belief in me and that clicked with me straight away. I felt, ‘Yeah, they really want me to be here’. The people were very good. Xabier [Mancisidor], the first team coach, came to speak with me.

“He was plain and simple, very straight forward. He said, ‘You’re going to come and play for Manchester City and that’s how it’s going to be’. That was the moment it clicked for me and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is where I want to be’.

The day after he arrived, City hosted Liverpool, coming out on top 2-1 in a game that went a long way to deciding the destination of the Premier League title last season. “I watched Ederson all game. I wanted to see how he did things, how he communicated and what he did for every minute. When you watch a match on TV you don’t see the keeper all the time so that was a big help.”

And also an eye opener, as he saw up close the levels to which he now aspires. That is the long-term goal; for the time being, there are little battles and tests he must overcome every day.

There are psychologists on site available on request, who also check in with the scholars every month. “When things are good and you have those high moments, it’s about staying calm.

“When there are lows and you are feeling down it is important to know there is help there for you and people to speak to,” Bazunu reasons, with Cara adding: “We can have long conversations and very short ones. There can be calls with long silences but Gavin is good at reaching out.

“There are so many options for you if you need them,” Bazunu continues. “What I try to focus on is the next training session, the next game, just improving every day.

“Instead of trying to overthink things that might never happen, concentrate on what you are doing every day. If things happen earlier than I think that will be a bonus but there is no point worrying about things that aren’t happening yet.”

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