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‘Pep gets monthly reports on how he’s doing’ - The breakout Irish star of 2021

It’s been a phenomenal 12 months for Gavin Bazunu.

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YOU WOULD struggle to name many Irish footballers that had a better 2021 than Gavin Bazunu.

This time last year, the Dubliner was arguably Ireland’s fourth-choice goalkeeper, behind Darren Randolph, Caoimhin Kelleher and Mark Travers.

Now, he is firmly established as the country’s number one, having played regularly for Stephen Kenny’s side this year.

At club level too, he has excelled, winning admirers at Portsmouth, who are eighth and pushing for promotion in League One currently.

“Gavin’s save was as good as I’ve seen live, a brilliant save,” Pompey boss Danny Cowley told reporters after the Irish star picked up his fourth consecutive clean sheet and pulled off a superb stop last weekend. 

Given his impressive rise, it’s remarkable to think it’s still only a few years since a young Bazunu entered into the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme, which identifies the country’s most talented youngsters and brings them together every week with intention of ultimately picking them at international level.

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Fellow Irish star Troy Parrott was among the other notable names in the same age group as Bazunu, who attended the centre of excellence in Peamount, South Dublin.

A broken foot meant he missed six months, though it didn’t unduly impact his progress.

“He just had that one standout skill where he was above everyone else,” recalls Richie Fitzgibbon, a former League of Ireland goalkeeper who worked with Bazunu starting when he was “about 12 or 13″ in the ETP.

“He was so coachable. You could see he had serious potential and that he would end up where he has ended up. 

“He was by no means the finished article, there were a fair few technical faults with him. But he’s a top-class goalkeeper now, it wasn’t a problem, he was growing into his body and that sort of stuff gets tidied up.

“But where he stood out was his distribution. From an early age, you could see how comfortable he was on the football, he was ahead of most ‘keepers his age. You’d have no problem putting him into an outfield session. He was like a holding midfield player where he was comfortable receiving the ball under pressure, playing passes. He was like a little playmaker.

“Even at that stage, it was ‘wow’. He had only come back from a broken foot and you think to yourself: ‘Jesus Christ, we’d love to have this guy in for this camp.’”

When you ask around about Bazunu’s character, some recurring themes crop up.

“He was a little bit shy, but when he spoke, he always spoke very well,” says Fitzgibbon. “And he wasn’t a goalkeeper that would be very vocal. But the information he used to give to players in front of him was something you’d expect from a senior pro.

“So although he came across as shy, he was very mature when he went out onto the pitch and I think the players respected that.

“You see that now in his interviews where he’s cool and calm. It’s a credit to him. 

“In team meetings, he buys into it. He would positively challenge you. He would ask questions, good questions. He’d want to know reasons why you were doing specific drills or whatever.”

gavin-bazunu Bazunu pictured playing for Shamrock Rovers in 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’d say Gavin’s middle of the road, lovely kid, very intelligent,” adds a Man City source. “He thinks before he speaks and when he speaks, everyone listens.

“It doesn’t matter what age he is, he’s always got something informative to say.

“He’s a respectful kid and extremely driven to be a top, top ‘keeper. And the fact that he’s achieved so much at a young age proves that.

“The feedback that I get from players and managers and staff is always positive. With Gavin, they can’t believe the age he is with the maturity he has.

“We see so many players that fail because of the entourage they have, but I don’t think that will ever happen with Gavin.”

Dean Kiely was appointed as Ireland’s goalkeeping coach last January, succeeding Alan Kelly in the role.

The following March, Bazunu made his Ireland debut, though his assured international bow was overshadowed by the team’s dismal performance, as they were beaten 1-0 by Luxembourg.

Kiely, who balances his Irish duties with work at Crystal Palace, had been aware of Bazunu before linking up with him, but it was only in seeing the star at close quarters that he fully appreciated the extent of his talent.

“He’s an impressive character. He carries himself well. He engages you in conversation. He challenges you. He wants to ask questions, to watch clips and all those sorts of things that you’d expect an elite sportsman to do.”

Like Fitzgibbon, Kiely acknowledges that Bazunu’s ability with the ball at his feet is particularly strong, though he also suggests goalkeepers of his era are often underrated in that regard.

“I can show you clips of me Cruyff turning [Thierry] Henry and playing it out from the back at Highbury. I think the perception that you used to just stand in the middle of your goal and hoof it up the pitch [is exaggerated].”

An Ireland debut earlier this year was the latest landmark for Bazunu, who became the youngest player ever to line out for Shamrock Rovers in their match against Bray at 16 years and 109 days, while he would later feature for the Hoops in the Europa League against AIK Stockholm.

Fitzgibbon admits to being somewhat nervous for him, as the Firhouse native was thrown into the deep end at such a young age.

“You’re just thinking: ‘Jeez, I hope this doesn’t go wrong.’ As a goalkeeper, it’s about confidence and if you have a wobble at 16 years of age on the big stage, can you recover?

“But Gavin went out that night and did fantastically and he played in a couple of league games after that. He was brilliant, I was delighted for him.

“But certainly going in at that young age, you’d fear for most kids at 16 and particularly your goalkeeper.”

dean-kiely-and-stephen-kenny Ireland's goalkeeping coach Dean Kiely and manager Stephen Kenny. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kiely, on the other hand, had no such fears when Bazunu made his Ireland debut at 19.

Asked if he had any doubts as to whether the teenager could cope with the pressure of the big occasion, the former Charlton ‘keeper replies: “Not really. I think sometimes this is where the perception is not the reality, the fact that as a coach, you do your due diligence in terms of you watch people, you watch clips, you work on stuff.

“What I would say is that international football has a different rhythm to club football. So I get three elite goalkeepers for a short space of time for a short window, but you’re playing lots of really important games in that window. It’s important for me not to [worry].

“It’s not about me as a coach, it’s not about my ego. You’ll never see tonnes of equipment. It’s about the goalkeepers that are on there. So I’ve got to provide the framework and the positive environment for these three goalkeepers to come in and do their thing.”

Another characteristic that makes Bazunu stand out is his unflappable nature.

Something everyone interviewed for this piece mentions is his ability to quickly forget about any mistakes he does make — another significant sign of his maturity.

What Bazunu also has in his favour — and it’s not necessarily a given with talented young footballers — is a strong support network.

“His dad is brilliant,” says Fitzgibbon. “I remember he made his debut [at underage level] against the Czech Republic. Gavin probably didn’t have the best game that day, the nerves got to him, but there were some moments in the game where he was fantastic. You turn to the crowd and there’s his dad with the huge tricolour hat on him, the scarf, all decked out in the Ireland gear singing ‘Olé, Olé’ for 80 minutes. And that’s consistent right up to the 21s and the senior team.

“His dad and little brother are probably his biggest supporters. You’ve got to hand it to them, it’s brilliant to see.”

Bazunu’s exceptional performances for Rovers, winning a player-of-the-month award for July 2018, made him one of the most sought-after teenagers in football.

Then-manager Stephen Bradley recently remarked: “It was crazy at the time with clubs in Italy and every corner of Europe looking for Gavin.”

One key condition of Bazunu’s move to Man City, for a reported record League of Ireland fee of £420,000, was that he was able to finish his Leaving Cert, which he undertook at Ashfield College as part of the Hoops’ partnership with the school.

“We had conversations but he wanted to finish his education — that was important to him and his family,” explains a City source.

“And we encouraged that as well. He was young enough when he came over to us.”

“He stayed in Ireland to get his Leaving Cert,” Fitzgibbon adds. “I think it’s massive, particularly with Brexit now, there’s no rush for kids.

“Before it was ‘we must get over at 16’. 99% of them come back and don’t get that second contract. You’re only one tackle away from never playing again, so education is vital. If you’re good, every kid will find their level. If you have that standout skill, you’ll get there.”

stephen-bradley Stephen Bradley handed Bazunu his first-team debut at Shamrock Rovers. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Bazunu officially signed for Man City in February 2019 and quickly won admirers there.

In August of last year, the youngster was named in the first-team squad for a Champions League round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid.

“He’s just one that is completely focused on his football and doing everything to make himself better,” says a club source. “The conversations that he has with our goalkeeping coach [Xabi Mancisidor] every week with his performances, conversations that he has with our psychologist to work on the mental side, Gavin just is a sponge that wants to learn as much as he can and improve as much as he can.”

Last season, Bazunu made 29 league appearances after joining Rochdale, a club located close to Man City, on loan.

Though he impressed during this spell, it was not all plain sailing, as the club were eventually relegated and Bazunu was omitted from the side for the last nine fixtures of the season. 

“I was very conscious of the fact that for a few weeks I’ve been desperate to give Gavin a breather,” then-manager Brian Barry-Murphy told Rochdale’s official website at the time.

“He didn’t get the international break [off] and he’s had a very intense block of games — and there’s an amount of travelling involved too. It’s been on my mind for a while and, if I’m being honest, Friday at Portsmouth was where I was seriously considering it, but I asked him to go again.

“Today was a great afternoon to give Jay [Lynch] a deserved start because he’s been exceptional in his work. The healthy competition between both of those guys has been falling in favour of Gavin and he has done well, but I felt as if Jake had to play today.”

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Rochdale may not have stayed in League One ultimately, but Bazunu did, as he joined Portsmouth on loan at the beginning of the following campaign.

“Gav has been different class since he came in,” Portsmouth captain Clark Robertson said earlier this season.

“He almost plays as a third centre-back behind us. On the ball, shot stopping, everything about him is just different class.

“It gives me and Raggs [Sean Raggett] so much confidence and I think that has shown by us only conceding two goals in the first six games.” 

And Man City have been keeping a close eye on his exploits.

“Of course, we watch every single minute that he plays. We’re in contact with him regularly. He gets weekly feedback from our first-team goalkeeping coach. They’re in contact after every single game.

“So Gavin’s got all the support that he needs when he’s there. Portsmouth have been fantastic as well in their communication both with us and Gavin, so we couldn’t ask for more. We always knew that if he was playing regularly at a good level, which he is for his age, that he would be in and around the national team, and he is. 

“There will be specific elements that our first-team goalkeeping coach is working through. The biggest thing is he’s just young and he needs to get experience in different situations, which he’s getting at the moment, so he’s absolutely on the right track.

“We don’t need to put him under any pressure. He knows what he needs to work on. And between them, they will do that.”

republic-of-irelands-gavin-bazunu-saves-the-shot-of-serbias-aleksandar-mitrovic-during-the-2022-fifa-world-cup-qualifying-match-at-aviva-stadium-dublin-picture-date-tuesday-september-7-2021 Republic of Ireland's Gavin Bazunu saves the shot of Serbia's Aleksandar Mitrovic Source: Alamy Stock Photo

So would someone as high up as Pep Guardiola have any interest in Bazunu at this stage of his career?

“He’d be 100% aware of him. Pep gets monthly reports on how he’s doing. Both Pep and our sporting director [Txiki Begiristain] are aware of what he’s achieving. But the day to day and weekly contact is with the first-team goalkeeping coach, who’s there to develop Gavin.

“Pep’s got enough to speak about with the first team and the number of games and players he has to deal with there.

“But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take an interest in the younger boys, he absolutely does, and he’s often asking about them.”

There has been some talk of City potentially recalling Bazunu from his loan spell, as they have the option to do, in January.

That would then mean the Etihad outfit could send him to a club playing at a higher level for the remainder of the season.

However, The42 understands this is unlikely to happen, as City generally don’t like moving players midway through a campaign unless they have to.

And as well as he has done at Fratton Park, it is his performances for Ireland this year that will live the longest in the memory.

The Cristiano Ronaldo penalty save and the man-of-the-match display at home to Serbia are two occasions in particular where it felt as if Bazunu had truly come of age.

“People talk about opportunities,” says Kiely. “And through Darren Randolph being injured at that particular time and Caoimhin Kelleher also being injured, an opportunity presented itself to Gavin and Mark [Travers] also. The fact that he’s taken the opportunity and ran with it, and amassed the caps is a credit to him. It’s okay getting an opportunity, but you have to seize that opportunity.”

“That save against Ronaldo, the pressure on the kid’s shoulders to be able to pull that one out of the bag is unbelievable,” adds Fitzgibbon. “That’s something you’d have on your wall and tell your grandkids. What an image that is and what a story to tell.”

“What was interesting about the Ronaldo one is that the analysis guys with the international team, you sit and collate and you try to find trends and patterns and you present them to the players,” says Kiely.

“So you present them to the goalkeepers and you want them to engage and have a bit of feedback. So that process is healthy and if there is a penalty and I see this particular trait and style, then I think he’s going to go such a way, we all would agree and commit to that, and then he has to execute it.

“So in that respect, you look at processes and think, that’s a good outcome. Credit to him, because he committed to it and he’s got to make the save.

“But you’ve still got to do that work at club and international level, that’s undertaken by a team of analysis guys who work incredibly hard. Then they sort of filter it all through, presenting to the coaches who have their input and then it’s presented to goalkeepers, players, whatever it may be. So it’s a huge undertaking, a huge process, we’ve lots of people involved.

“You want it to be in a comfortable format in a way that goalkeepers feel they have an input in the process. It certainly isn’t commanding in terms of ‘you must do this in this situation’. It’s trying to be accommodating. You want the goalkeeper’s opinion on it and you want some feedback. Gavin’s an engaging fella, he wants to learn, he wants to ask questions and he wants to know the whys and the wherefores.” 

cristiano-ronaldo-after-the-game-with-gavin-bazunu Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo after the game with goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu of Ireland. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

The Ronaldo moment caused much excitement at City too:  “When you see a nice kid doing well, it makes it even more special.

“I think back to the Portugal game and he’s made that save. Ronaldo walks off the pitch with him and they’re having a chat. That wouldn’t faze him at all.”

That last image especially feels like the perfect metaphor. Even at that level, many teenagers would have appeared starstruck coming off the field in the company of a legendary figure. Bazunu, by contrast, looked entirely at home. 

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Fennessy

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