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Why Evan Ferguson will be Brighton’s next teenage superstar

BRIGHTON & HOVE, England — When asked to sum up his incredible journey as a Premier League footballer to this point, Brighton & Hove Albion‘s 19-year-old striker Evan Ferguson makes sure to highlight the speed of his development.

“I’d say it’s just gone very quick,” Ferguson tells ESPN. “When you’re in and around that environment and that atmosphere, it feels like you don’t have a minute. Whether you’re training, you’re recovering, there’s a game every few days, you know what I mean? It’s gone very quick.”

Ferguson has been living life in the fast lane and it’s easy to forget he’s still a teenager. Since making his Brighton debut in February 2022 he has established himself as first-team player in the Premier League, and also for the Republic of Ireland, for whom he made his international debut that November.

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With 10 goals in 25 appearances as a virtual unknown last season, Ferguson was lauded as Brighton’s next ready-made superstar — linked with a £100 million move to some of Europe’s elite clubs — and continued his meteoric rise when he scored in this season’s opener against Luton Town. Two games later he became the sixth-youngest player to score a hat trick in the Premier League with a wonderful display in a 3-1 win against Newcastle United.

The 6-foot striker showed everything that day: His first goal was a poacher’s finish after goalkeeper Nick Pope had dropped the ball; for his second, Ferguson slipped back into midfield, collected the ball and curled a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner; the third was a deflected shot from outside the box.

With the ability to make such an impact at a young age, it’s easy to see why Ferguson idolises Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney. Growing up supporting United, the teenage forward is following in Rooney’s illustrious footsteps in the Premier League.

“Coming in and playing as a young, I felt like I could relate to it a little bit, doing things a bit younger. So I feel like him in a way,” he says in an interview with ESPN in February.

Arriving sooner than expected has been a hallmark of Ferguson’s young career to date. In 2019, he made his senior debut at 14 years old in a 1-1 preseason draw against Chelsea for his hometown team, Bohemian FC, in the heart of Dublin. It was Frank Lampard’s first game as manager at Chelsea. Ferguson, a boy not yet near becoming a man, came off the bench and went up against Chelsea’s imposing defender Kurt Zouma. “It was a mad experience,” Ferguson remembers.

The Bohemian FC captain that day, Derek Pender, recalls the battle well, too. “He held him [Zouma] off,” he tells ESPN, before pointing out that Ferguson played a part in a Bohemians’ equaliser. “He was like an old school centre-forward. I remember speaking to his dad after the end of the game saying: ‘That’s it. He’s coming in with the first team now.'”

From there, Ferguson’s career skyrocketed. “You’re thinking here’s our new main No. 9 because he was so good in the game,” Pender adds. “After that debut, there was a lot of hype around him. He stayed with the squad for a couple of weeks after and came up and made his debut in the League of Ireland. Again, [there was] a lot of noise around him and for somebody so young, but Evan took it all in his stride.”

Despite his solid performances and assured attitude, the club and Ferguson’s family agreed that he would return to the youth team and he was placed in the under-17s — a side then coached by Pender himself.

“They did a really good thing for Evan and took him out of the limelight, tried to keep the hype down,” Pender says. “Over here, people get ahead of themselves, and when you see a 14-year-old playing in the League of Ireland he was getting a lot of attention that he probably didn’t need.”

Returning to Bohemians’ youth setup would prove fruitful: First, Ferguson led the youth team to the U17 title, playing a starring role in the final against Shamrock Rovers as his brilliant goal set up a 2-0 win.

“He took the game by the scruff of the neck,” Pender says. “He worked so hard that game to ensure that we won. I’m not talking about just playing as a No. 9. He was playing full-back, left wing, everywhere, just to try and make sure that we got over the line and we won the game, because he knew I think in his head that this is it [his last game before moving to Brighton].”

Then, he set his sights on securing a professional contract and went on trial at a few different clubs — including Liverpool, Manchester United, Celtic and Everton — before settling upon Brighton.

“I just sort of got the feeling,” Ferguson says. “I knew this was the club that I wanted to go to. They have a pathway [to the first team], so I took the chance.”

If there is a pathway for other players, it was a highway for Ferguson. He signed for Brighton at age 16 in January 2021 and within nine months, he had made his senior debut. Then came the series of firsts: First goal, against Forest Green in the Carabao Cup first round against Forest Green in August 2022; first Premier League goal, in a 4-2 defeat against Arsenal; first hat trick, in that game against Newcastle.

Ferguson represents the kind of central striker that modern clubs desire. Coaches point toward his 6-foot frame, physicality and clinical finishing as things that set him apart from his peers. Still only a teenager, he has plenty of time to gain the consistency he needs to find his feet at the top level and, whatever the expectation or attention, he remains down to earth.

“I don’t think it’s changed for me, really,” he says. “I think from an outside point of view, maybe it hasn’t, or maybe it looks like it has. But for me it’s still just the same old thing doing what I’m doing.”

Ferguson has showcased his incredible ability over the past two seasons, but he has been tested as well — not least by a four-month drought in front of goal, a run of 23 games, before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Liverpool at the end of March.

But for all Ferguson’s highlights over recent years, it was a moment after the humbling 4-0 defeat to Roma in the UEFA Europa League that Brighton first-team coach Andrew Crofts believes reveals the most about him.

“I think speaking with Evan when he wasn’t at his most confident and seeing how much he cared,” he tells ESPN. “It’s a great thing for a young player to pull a coach and speak with him. You see a genuine care for his career that he has, he’s not just a young player who has massive talent. He’s playing for a Premier League club and thinks that ‘I’ve made it, what else can I do?’

“I genuinely love him because there’s a grit there and there’s a willingness there to get everything out of his career. I think it’s just a part of his journey, where you hit some real highs early and then maintain that for a decent period.”

Ultimately, Ferguson’s season did not pan out quite as he nor Brighton had hoped. But he’ll be back.

“I’m excited speaking about him again,” Croft says. “I’ve missed him for this period of time. Just speaking about it makes you go, ‘I can’t wait for him to come back,’ and hopefully around preseason or whenever it is that he’s back with us, hopefully we see someone who just keeps improving even more.”

Brighton’s 1-1 draw at Newcastle last weekend, without Ferguson, serves as a reminder of how quickly life in the Premier League can change. But while there is a tendency to inflate ambitions when young players excel quicker than expected, the striker is keeping his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to thinking about the future.

“Whatever I say now, it’s never going to be right because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “So I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you.”
Source espn

EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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