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Gavin Bazunu: Man City's teenage goalkeeper out to stall Ronaldo's record bid

09:00 BST 01/09/2021
Gavin Bazunu NXGN GFX
The 19-year-old will start for Ireland versus Portugal on Wednesday, with the Manchester United forward one strike away from international immortality

Only one thing stands between Cristiano Ronaldo and the outright men's international goalscoring record.

And that is a teenage goalkeeper currently playing in the third tier of English football.

Gavin Bazunu will play in his fifth senior international match for Ireland on Wednesday and face the most difficult opponent of his career so far.

It seems unlikely that a 19-year-old would be the player tasked with keeping a clean sheet against Ronaldo, but Bazunu's rise inside and outside of Ireland has been meteoric, and there is a lot of faith that he can stop Ronaldo scoring a record-breaking 110th international goal.

The Manchester City starlet is spending the current season on loan at Portsmouth, and kept three clean sheets in his first three games for the Fratton Park outfit, meaning he is in excellent form heading into the international break.

And making an instant impact is something Bazunu has grown used to over the years, having first done so when breaking through at Shamrock Rovers aged just 16.

Ireland's most-decorated club was having a goalkeeping crisis during the 2018 season, with regulars Tomer Chencinski and Kevin Horgan failing to impress manager Stephen Bradley.

After Chencinski conceded five to title rivals Dundalk, Bradley opted to give Bazunu a go in goal, despite his own reservations at putting so much pressure on someone so young.

Bazunu rewarded his manager with four clean sheets in his first four League of Ireland games, and helped the Hoops take Swedish side AIK to extra-time in Europa League qualifying.

“At 16, especially goalkeepers, you don’t want to throw them in that early, but sometimes you just can’t hold them back,” Bradley said after Bazunu's debut. “Sometimes they’re ready, and he’s ready.”

That initial run included a penalty save at Cork City, which would prove to be Bazunu's last major involvement in the League of Ireland, as City came calling shortly after.

Many League of Ireland players have other jobs to help pay the bills, with the league's all-time top scorer in the Champions League, David McMillan, combining playing for Dundalk with a career as an architect.

Luke Byrne was coaching Shamrock Rovers Under-15s as well as playing for their senior side when Bazunu made his breakthrough.

"We had earmarked Gavin as our goalkeeper for the very first League of Ireland U15s season, Byrne explains to Goal, "but the closer it got to the start of the under-age season, Gav was doing so well and started training with the first team, it became clear we wouldn't have him.

"He was fast-tracked to the U19s and was starting for them when he was 15. When he came into the first team, he did really well straight away.

"The fascinating thing about him was that if the numbers in training were odd and the coach needed a floating player in a possession drill, someone who was with both teams, Gav would be that player.

"This was bizarre as usually it would be a central midfield player, someone who was really comfortable on the ball, but Gavin was the 15-year-old fourth-choice goalkeeper who was jumping into the outfield part of sessions, which is unheard of."

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Bazunu's ball-playing ability is one of the reasons he was also fast-tracked into the Ireland senior squad, despite not having yet played for City's first team.

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny is attempting to move away from the traditional physical, long-ball approach favoured by his predecessors - albeit with very mixed results so far - and wants to play out from the back.

Having someone like Bazunu starting the attacks from the penalty area gives him that opportunity, as well as the fact Bazunu is a good shot-stopper that defenders will feel comfortable playing in front of.

Similarly, Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley was also surprised at just how good Bazunu was with the ball at his feet during his first month on loan at the club.

"Gavin can play so high out of his goal and that allows us to use him as our pivot. That then allows us to get an extra number up the pitch," Cowley told reporters after Bazunu's clever play helped them score against Crewe Alexandra.

"There’s so much faith in him that he can be a real protagonist in our attacking play, despite wearing the number one."

Bazunu is not short on confidence, and sees his loan moves both at Rochdale last season and Portsmouth this, as well as his performances for Ireland, as a way to get noticed by Pep Guardiola

“I wouldn't have gone to Manchester City unless I thought I could be the number one goalkeeper," Bazunu said in June while on international duty with Ireland. "Every day, that's what I work towards. That's the goal."

Man City paid £420,000 ($580,000) to sign Bazunu in 2018, but were one of many clubs interested in signing him thanks to his strong showings at Shamrock Rovers.

"He was turning heads quite early," Byrne admits. "I knew from his attitude and speaking to him and how much extra training he did that he had a chance of making it, and things escalated quite quickly for him.

"He was definitely the best young goalkeeper in the academy, but at the time, he was only third-choice goalkeeper for Ireland [U17s]. He really stood out for being good with his feet. He was exceptional with his feet.

"He was always, always with the goalkeeping coach. He used to follow him around to talk to him. They would do one-on-one video sessions that Gav would push for. He was always looking for feedback.

"He would come in on a Monday morning and the lads would be talking about Premier League games, but Gav would be able to analyse the goalkeepers and talked about technique and why various keepers made certain decisions. There was no distractions for Gav. It was always about football.

"The real lightbulb moment for me was when we went over with our U15s to play Chelsea, and Gavin came because Chelsea were keen to look at him against their best U15s and U16s.

"Gav was comfortably the best player on the pitch. He looked like a 20-year-old playing in an U16 game. So I thought 'Chelsea are the creme de la creme, but Gav is better than anything they have, so maybe he is a bit special'."

Just a few weeks after that Chelsea game, Bazunu made his senior debut for Shamrock Rovers. He was somewhat eased into action as opponents Bray Wanderers received an early red card, but he went on to impress in more difficult circumstances too.

"Anything he did, he did really well, there were no signs of nerves," defender Byrne recalls. "It was the away game in Europe [against AIK] when he was willing to come out to the side of his box and basically time waste in the 90th minute with 15,000 Swedish fans shouting at him that I thought 'Jesus Christ, this kid is something else!' I'd never seen something like it before, just the mentality and maturity.

"As players, we never had any doubt about him. We were confident in him. We just wanted him to play. It was incredible he was 16 years old and he was that intelligent and mature.

"When the City move happened, it was no surprise. All the big clubs were trying to get him."

Bazunu has appeared on City's bench in the Champions League, but this season he is honing his trade on loan in League One.

On Wednesday, he faces a totally different level of opponent as Portugal host Ireland in Faro as part of their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Can he stop Ronaldo breaking the goalscoring record?

"It would be incredible, wouldn't it? It would be a pretty cool thing to say," Byrne says, laughing.