Why Gavin Bazunu needs to stay in goals if Stephen Kenny is to succeed as Ireland manager

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

– Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

In our very own palace of Saint Petersburg, the vast and hollow shelled Aviva Stadium, the minnows of European football broke in and stole the crown jewels – an essential three points that, barring a sporting miracle, ruled us out of the 2022 World Cup. As we were overrun by the red-shirted football revolutionaries, it was hard to consider that anything positive could be gained from the evening. There was only one point, of course, one player that could infuse a glimmer of hope for future ventures. The goalkeeper.

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Gavin Bazunu is in the new breed of modern goalkeepers, since his beginnings at Shamrock Rovers he has been taught to play the ball out from the back, and does so with bravery and an icy calmness that such an act requires. Manchester City signed him on basis of this aspect of his game, it’s one of the most important qualities Guardiola looks for in a keeper, and the very reason he let Joe Hart go.

To be considered good enough for the City academy speaks of his potential. He is being earmarked as a future candidate to replace Ederson, but given the Brazilians age profile (28) it seems the young Dubliner will have to bide his time with loan moves as he is signed up until 2024. That, however, is no bad thing, his current apprenticeship at Rochdale in League One is a character-building endeavour and preferable to Darren Randolph and Caoimhin Kelleher’s situations as backup keepers.

Bazunu has all the qualities a top keeper needs these days, excellent distribution, calmness under pressure, and that mad dog ability to organise his defence. Belting out the anthem doesn’t harm his cause either. He has conceded 53 goals in his 28 starts for Rochdale, a tough learning process, and this will stand to him. He is only 19 of course, which has to be factored into the accounts, but he is playing first-team football where more experienced players are not.

Darren Randolph, it needs to be said, is not finished. He deserves full respect for what he has achieved for Ireland. He has been an unsung hero and our best goalkeeper of the last 10 years, and by no means should he be retired. His name should still be included in the squad as his experience is vital in an Irish camp. Randolph’s issue, as it has always been, is that he cannot seem to hold down a place at club level. His time at West Ham has stalled his career rather than progressed it. He would be in a much stronger position starting for a Championship contender, rather than warming the bench and looking at the back of David Moyes head.

Kelleher could prove to be a top prospect too, but he faces the same problem as Bazunu, the fact that they are behind two of the world’s elite goalkeepers in Alisson and Ederson respectively. The dream of Bazunu in goal for City and Kelleher for Liverpool is a mouthwatering prospect for the Irish football fan. If that came to pass we could see a renaissance of the Irish goalkeeper that would be wholly welcomed. But for now, Stephen Kenny should be concentrating on the players that are getting game time, and advising most of his squad to get any minutes they can at club level.

Mark Travers was given his chance against Serbia as the more senior keeper, but his performance was certainly lacking. While Kenny spoke defensively about him in the media, you feel behind closed doors that he has blown his chance with the manager. This brings us back to the man currently in goal.

A great young lad, a fantastic player.

– Seamus Coleman

It was a tough introduction to international football against Luxembourg, but steel hearts are often forged in fire. Seamus Coleman’s thoughts came immediately to his young keeper in the post-match “we don’t want his debut to be tainted by that”. He was then followed by the 19-year-old who had some stern words for a player making his debut, “the performance wasn’t good enough as a whole team, including myself”.

He looked comfortable again in the Qatar game and could do little about the goal. He was unsighted for the strike as Molumby tried to block, and as any shot-stopper will tell you, it’s much harder to stop a shot you cant see. His reaction to conceding was not to go into his shell but to hound and order about experienced defenders like Coleman and Duffy.

“That’s my job” when said when asked about his shouting down of the team. You feel Roy Keane was raising his cup of tea to salute the kid back in Manchester. “Whether I’m playing with Rochdale or like with Ireland, I suppose, that’s my job”. There was a real metal to his voice, and maturity for someone is still classed as a teenager. “I have to be the loudest, I have to communicate” all the great keepers dominate their area, and his relationship with his defence clear.

His hairiest moment came within the first ten minutes when he almost conceded a penalty. Like his City counterpart Ederson, Bazunu rushes out of his goal when faced with a ball over the top. This is how Manchester City play, and it’s what Bazunu will have learned from his time at the club. If he ever hopes to get into that star-studded side he will have to master the art of the rush.

And if Ireland play higher up the pitch we must have a keeper who can confidently fill this role. While those two mistakes almost cost us – the rushing style is a key part of Kenny’s system, we saw how it went wrong when Travers was chipped by Mitrovic. It is a skill that even the elite keepers can mismanage on occasions. But it takes a brave goalie to do it, and Kenny fully believes it is worthwhile to dominate possession, saying “some of our play has been nothing short of brilliant”.

Randolph might be the better all-round keeper at the moment, but in terms of relevancy to the Ireland managers game-plan, it is Bazunu that is at the forefront of the Kenny revolution. Randolph will be 36 by the time the next European Championship qualifiers begin. And he has only made four Premier League appearances in the last two seasons. Kelleher, who has been desperately unlucky with injury, has also only played two games. Although he has played Champions League and FA Cup games in Alisson’s absence which is a major achievement. But he needs to move to a Championship or European team on loan to get that match sharpness in his game.

Kelleher may come good, but Bazunu is now the man with the minutes, and what we have seen is enough evidence to base a philosophy around. Stephen Kenny certainly thinks so, “I’ve great belief in the players we have in the squad. I think we’re going to formulate a very very good squad over the next couple of years”.

What sets Bazunu apart, from what we have seen so far, is his aggressive demanding of the ball. He requested a one-two several times and even moved out to the left-back position on occasions to get a better angle to receive and then pass the ball on again. He always looks for a quick pass out to the wing from kick outs, ushering players come to him. Whether Kenny keeps the three at the back or reverts to the four, his idealogy of playing out from the back will not be changed.

For passing comparisons, Alisson makes on average 28.43 passes per match, while Ederson’s is at 25.56. Bazunu made 27 passes against Qatar, only two of which could be regarded as long balls out. And this is in a team that were outpassed on the night (Qatar had 397 passes to 328 for Ireland). This directive has come straight from the Ireland manager who is looking to overhaul our traditional style of play.

The arrival of this kid could allow us to finally be the spark that reignites a fire in Irish football as he becomes the conduit for possession-based football. The Kenny culture war went into overdrive this week, with sides being firmly chosen. This week may end up shaping the next decade of Irish football, for better or worse, as it has finally dawned on much of the public that youth investment is desperately needed in this country.

A revolution is coming and like any conflict, it will be bloody, and there will be casualties along the way. However, every rebellion usually starts from the ground up, and in this case, it is coming directly from the kid in goal.

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John McMahon

Sportswriter and self-proclaimed football boot aficionado. John McMahon hails from Co. Laois and covers domestic and European football.

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