In September, Gavin Bazunu thrusted himself into the limelight with a penalty save to deny Cristiano Ronaldo what would have been a record-breaking international goal.
While he was eventually undone by the Portuguese star late on, Bazunu’s heroics to deny the Manchester United forward was hardly a new feeling for him as he broke new ground, again.
Born and raised in Firhouse, Bazunu is of Nigerian descent – and has enjoyed a remarkable career so far, making his professional debut when he was just 16.
Now 19, the Manchester City loanee – currently on loan at Portsmouth – finds himself as Ireland’s first-choice goalkeeper under Stephen Kenny just over three years on from his incredible senior debut with Shamrock Rovers.
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: The Debut.
In 2018, Stephen Bradley, and Shamrock Rovers were enduring a difficult time before Bazunu was handed his debut against Bray Wanderers in July of that year.
At the time, the Hoops’ deficiencies in the goalkeeping department were evident, with Tomer Chencinski and Kevin Horgan unable to bring a change in fortune to Bradley’s beleaguered troops.
While his debut was relatively comfortable against the Seagulls, his heroics away to Cork City at Turner’s Cross was the night when his world changed.
After Bazunu’s debut, the Dubliner made three appearances in a row for the club, starring in domestic, and European competition for the Hoops.
And he would impress so much that his manager, Stephen Bradley, regretted not playing him earlier.
“One regret I have is not playing Gavin Bazunu earlier,” Bradley explained to Ringsend to Tallaght: The Shamrock Rovers’ players stories.
“I should have played him a week before,” he added. “I sat down and had a chat with him and I just had a feeling he was a little nervous, I was always conscious of protecting him so I didn’t play him.
“For his debut against Bray, I told him just a few hours before the game to take those nerves away. Gavin is a special talent and not just on the pitch. He is so humble but so driven off the pitch and that goes a long way.
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) July 9, 2018
“He is young but has old-school values. I look forward to seeing him progress. He has gone on to play for Ireland, he could get 100 caps.”
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: The Poster Boy.
Bazunu’s rise comes at a critical juncture in Irish football when it comes to player development, it must be added.
Under current FIFA transfer regulations, Irish players are no longer allowed to join UK clubs under the age of 18 due to Brexit-related complications.
But Bazunu’s rise shows what can be achieved with players at home, if they are afforded the chance to do so.
“I think it’s quite simple, the future Irish internationals are in the underage leagues now,” Rovers’ Academy Director Shane Robinson explained at the launch of the FAI Underage National League’s in June.
“That’s the reality of it, and I think that’s a good thing if we invest in it properly for the boys and girls who are in that system now.
“They are the names that will pop up on the international teamsheets for Ireland. We all want to qualify for World Cups and European Championship’ and get excited like Italia 90 because the kids of this generation haven’t experienced that.
— Macdara Ferris (@macdarabueller) November 7, 2021
“But for that to happen, we have to invest. We’ve seen shoots of it with Gavin Bazunu coming through and having played for ourselves. The attention that has drawn has been brilliant because it shows you that pathway can work.
“I don’t think Gavin looks out of place in international football at all and it shows that what he did from 11-17 was right. He’s in a great place and hopefully he can go on and have a great career. It’s just one example.”
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: Man City.
While at Rovers, Bazunu burst onto the scene in incredible fashion, so much so that a move to the UK followed very shortly after.
In fact, the teenager only made four senior appearances for Rovers before completing a move to Man City for a League of Ireland record fee in Autumn 2018, before he then moved over to the UK in early 2019.
“It is fair to say that this is the biggest transfer by an Irish club in the professional era,” Rovers said at the time. “The funds generated from player sales this season are significant which in itself shows that our strategy is being implemented extremely well.
“To break the trend of young boys leaving Ireland with no education and very little in terms of a contract, this transfer is a defining moment for our club and for Irish football.
“We are very proud that our club has the vision, intent and drive to put in place support networks to develop our players in all aspects of their lives.
“Whilst Gavin is an exceptional talent, this transfer is ahead of where we thought we would be at the end of year two of our Academy Plan.
“Our talent pool is growing faster now than ever before and the pathway paved by Gavin is likely to result in more of the best talent in Ireland wanting to join our Academy.”
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: Development.
Since departing Rovers, Bazunu has gone from strength to strength, impressing with loan moves at Rochdale, and most recently with League One Portsmouth.
“The guy is an extraordinary young man and he is extremely talented,” Rochdale boss Brian Barry-Murphy said at the time when he signed Bazunu in August 2020.
“He’s a very young player but because he’s that age, it works for both parties. If he was two or three years down the line, then quite simply he wouldn’t be in a position where he could come here.
“He’s destined for great things and we’re very pleased to have him at our club for this period.”
While at the Dale, Bazunu made 29 league appearances, earning international recognition in the meantime.
Despite impressing with Rochdale, Bazunu was unable to help the club avoid relegation to League Two, but that would not deter Portsmouth from taking a punt on him in League One where he has continued to impress.
Gavin Bazunu’s late late save to protect all three points for Portsmouth tonight 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny’s Kids (@KennysKids) August 17, 2021
“He’s been excellent,” Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley said of Bazunu earlier this month despite a costly mistake.
“He’s a boy who is incredibly focused, very, very professional, has got an unbelievable mindset and he made a mistake.
“He’ll get over it. He is a tough boy and he’s on a pathway to success, there is absolutely no doubt about that.”
And that he has, as Bazunu has dusted himself off to impress for his loan side once more.
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: International recognition.
Since making his senior Ireland debut in March 2021 during the scarring defeat at home to Luxembourg, Bazunu has not looked back.
The Firhouse teenager has continued to impress for club and country in the face of some similarly impressive form from Mark Travers and Caoimhin Kelleher.
In September, Kenny showered Bazunu with praise after a superb showing against Serbia at the Aviva Stadium.
“I knew he was very good,” Kenny said about Bazunu. “I knew he had special qualities as a man.
” That struck me. He has characteristics that are special and unique as a human being. I really regard Caoimhin Kelleher so highly [as well].
“He is an exceptional goalkeeper but he is not playing. The character [Gavin] showed to save the penalty in Portugal was exceptional.
“They are two good prospects and hopefully they can fulfil their potential now.”
The Rise of Gavin Bazunu: Future plans.
For now, Bazunu will be hoping that he can continue his development with continued good showings for club and country, but he is not content on settling for any less.
Last month, he admitted that his aim is to become first-choice at Man City. And for a man who has already broken through the ceiling wherever he has gone, you’d be a fool to doubt him.
“I want to be out playing week in, week out if possible,” he said last month. “My reasoning for going out on loan was you get a chance every week to prove yourself and to be in the manager’s eye, and the goalkeeping coach’s eye.
“But if the best thing for me is to be in or around the squad learning every day and training with Xabi [City’s goalkeeper coach].
“If that’s my best opportunity to become Manchester City No 1, then I’d have to consider that.”
Bazunu, however, may struggle to keep his place in the Ireland starting XI this week against Portugal and Luxembourg such is the form of Championship goalkeeper Mark Travers.
If he is picked, although, Thursday’s clash in front of Ronaldo and co. at a sold-out Aviva Stadium offers Bazunu a chance to reflect on what he has achieved so far in his young career.
And without getting too excited, you get the sense that this may only be the start for the Firhouse teenager who is breaking new ground at a pace of knots.