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From working in the Shamrock Rovers gym to Southampton's €18.5 million man - Bazunu's big week

Technical director Stephen McPhail explains why Ireland’s newest Premier League star has all the tools to reach the top.

Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.
Southampton goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THE WEEK WHICH ended with Gavin Bazunu being unveiled as Southampton’s new €13.5 million goalkeeper began with him in one of his favourite places, surrounded by people he trusts the most.

On Monday and Tuesday, as Manchester City continued to negotiate the best package possible for a prospect they didn’t want to lose – inserting a buy-black cause into a deal that could rise to €18.5m – the 20-year-old headed for Shamrock Rovers’ Roadstone training base.

He didn’t involve himself in the side’s pitch sessions in preparation for Friday’s clash with Dundalk at Oriel Park, but did begin some gym work as well as mingling with the squad.

Not to mention dropping in on head coach Stephen Bradley and technical director Stephen McPhail.

“He comes into our office and questions tactics, the team. Just a kid who really, really wants to know and be involved. He wants to be inquisitive. He’s a great kid and really does think about the game,” McPhail explains.

Bazunu was kept abreast of all the latest developments in this transfer from the time around early April when it became clear that his breakthrough with Ireland as No.1, and performances on loan at Portsmouth in League One, had caught the eye of several top flight clubs in England and throughout Europe.

On Tuesday evening a breakthrough was close.

By Wednesday afternoon everything was agreed and Bazunu headed travelled to England for his medical.

And while a back issue ruled him out of Ireland’s Nations League campaign this month, his summer break allowed him the chance to take in Rovers’ Premier Division games.

He was a fixture in the stands – always decked out in Hoops gear – alongside his father and younger brother, and after they beat Shelbourne in the game prior to the mid-season break Damien Duff collared him for some friendly slagging about wearing his Rovers tracksuit. Right before they shared a hug.

“We fine him if he doesn’t have the Rovers gear on,” McPhail laughs.

Rovers have done well out of this transfer, too, and having made him the club’s youngest ever player when he broke through at 16 years old (he’d been training with them for two years previous to that), they are set to earn in the region of €3m once all add-ons are taken into consideration.

Bazunu only turned 20 in February and is set to become the youngest Ireland international who is a Premier League regular since James McCarthy joined Wigan Athletic aged 18 in July 2009.

McPhail, of course, knows what it’s like to be a young Irish star making their way in England’s top flight.

The former Leeds United midfielder was one of David O’Leary’s academy stars who thrived at Elland Road in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and while this is a different time he is convinced Bazunu is ready for the challenge.

gavin-bazunu Bazunu with his brother (left) and father (right) at the Rovers-Shels match recently. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s great, he’s a great kid, he has been here since he was a baby, as a club he done wonders for us, it’s great to see him in the league that he deserves to be in.

“His aim is to play. He’s going in to compete with another really good goalkeeper. You don’t pay that sort of money and think he’s… I don’t know what the manager has spoken about with him, I’m sure he’s ready to go there and play and compete.

“From day one in pre-season it’s important that he goes and competes with the other keeper and tries to get in the first-team.”

A loan spell from City with Rochdale in League Two led to Bazunu getting his chance with Ireland as Stephen Kenny sought to rebuild an aging squad.

Bazunu has been one of the poster boys of that progress and his displays at Southampton’s south coast rivals Portsmouth in League One also caught the eye.

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“No one has seen him at Premier League level. It’s great. We’ve seen him at international level and he’s very, very comfortable,” McPhail continued.

“I believe he can play Premier League. I don’t think we should be putting any pressure on him. Let him work hard, go there for pre-season and try get into the team.

stephen-mcphail Rovers technical director Stephen McPhail. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Obviously, we’re crying out for players from our country to be playing Premier League football, we don’t have enough of them. It’s great that he has an opportunity to go and do that.”

So far, Bazunu has taken every one that has come his way with both hands – a useful trait for a potentially world-class goalkeeper.

“That’s the key,” McPhail insists. “He seems ready all the time. He’s very level-headed, he doesn’t get carried away and he’s not into living a mad lifestyle. He’s really focused on trying to be the best keeper that he can be. That’s a massive attribute.

He has a really good mentality. For a goalkeeper it’s different, if you don’t have that mentality at a young age as a goalkeeper, it’s a tough one.

“We didn’t want to put him in too early but the more we looked at him, the more he’d been around the group for that year, the manager [Stephen Bradley] made a huge decision and just thought he was ready.

“Credit must go to the gaffer as well because no one knows how they’re going to react at that age. It’s very, very rare you put a keeper in at 15, 16 years of age. It was a bit of a gamble but one we were all confident he could deal with because of his mentality.”

As Southampton fans are about to find out.

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