Do The Republic Of Ireland Have The Most Exciting Young International Goalkeeper Department?

By Danny Lewis

News • Mar 24, 2023

Do The Republic Of Ireland Have The Most Exciting Young International Goalkeeper Department?

The Republic of Ireland's three senior goalkeepers are all currently under the age of 25 - but already have Premier League experience. 

The sheer amount of talent coming through from the Republic of Ireland is reason for the nation to be excited. Stephen Kenny’s latest squad announcement for this current international break only furthers that. 

There’s Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Nathan Collins and Norwich City’s Andrew Omobamidele in defence, Derby County’s Jason Knight and Stoke City’s Will Smallbone in midfield, and then there’s Brighton and Hove Albion teenager Evan Ferguson leading the way for their attackers. Ferguson, who has scored three goals in ten Premier League games, scored for his nation in their 3-2 win against Latvia; the first of two fixtures this international break. 

But the talent hasn't been restricted to outfield. In fact, it's the goalkeeping department that is the most saturated with Premier League-level, young talent. 

Speaking about this new wave of senior talent, the country’s U21 goalkeeper coach, Rene Gilmartin noted that "a lot has to be said for the development of the coaches in Ireland. The FAI have really invested in coach education and made courses a lot more available for coaches.” 

As put by the 35-year-old, who is also Ipswich Town’s First Team Goalkeeper Coach: “The pathway cannot be more apparent than with the senior goalkeepers in the squad now, with Gavin [Bazunu], Caoimhín [Kelleher] and Mark [Travers] all being involved with the U21s in recent campaigns. 

“Also, another aspect is that Stephen Kenny had stepped up from U21s manager to senior manager, so would have benefitted from having a really good reference on how the younger goalkeepers compared to the goalkeepers that were in the senior squad at the time.”

The goalkeepers will likely prove vital if the Boys in Green are to overcome a testing qualification group featuring France, the Netherlands, Greece and Gibraltar to reach Euro 2024.

Their experiences in the Premier League with Southampton, Liverpool and AFC Bournemouth respectively could prove the difference. “This [the fact they play in the Premier League] is very important and a clear sign of the level of goalkeepers in Ireland now,” Gilmartin says. “The international level is high pressure games with a lot of detail and preparation going into them, and goalkeepers with Premier League experience that the senior goalkeepers have will only benefit from this. 

“The Premier League will have many of the international players you are likely to be up against, so it is vital the goalkeepers are performing at similar levels on a consistent basis.”

Current number one Gavin Bazunu is currently the only one of the Irish trio getting regular minutes at club level at the moment. It's arguably been a baptism of fire for the 21-year-old in the Premier League, with Goalkeeper xG statistics (currently taking in a far wider range of variables than any mainstream provider) presenting a -5.38 shot-stopping score vs the average Premier League goalkeeper to date, indicating underperformance in this area of his game. His sweeping, however, has been statistically commendable, scoring +1.85 against the model. 

It is true that Bazunu was rapidly thrust into that limelight with a Premier League move from Manchester City to Southampton this summer, having spent the previous season in League One during his loan at Portsmouth. Nonetheless, despite Southampton's difficult season, he has already had some big moments with a superb stop to deny Mohamed Salah earning him Save of the Month for November and December, before he was more recently featured in the Team of the Week for shutting out Manchester United.

He also rose to prominence quickly at international level, making his debut while still plying his trade domestically in League One. Reaching 13 caps before the current set of international fixtures, he’s kept four clean sheets so far with the most notable coming against a Portugal side including Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and André Silva in World Cup qualifying.

Caoimhín Kelleher is one of two deputies to Bazunu, although started in the recent friendly vs Latvia.  Born in Cork, Kelleher can’t yet boast the Premier League experience of Bazunu-by-numbers having only featured in the top tier four times due to the small fact of having Alisson Becker for competition.

Nevertheless, the 24-year-old has already built up a considerable reputation both for Liverpool and his country, with the remarkable achievement of already being the Reds goalkeeper with the most victories and saves in penalty shootouts certainly not harming that repertoire.

In the EFL Cup, he denied Dani Ceballos after a sensational 5-5 draw against Arsenal, made strong saves to his left to deny Leicester City duo Luke Thomas and Ryan Bertrand, clinically scored in a final victory against Chelsea, then denied Conor Hourihane, Craig Forsyth and Lewis Dobbin after a goalless draw against Derby County this term.

Following the Carabao Cup final in 2022, Jürgen Klopp called Kelleher the best number two goalkeeper in the world, and the feeling now is that the Irishman’s eventual step up to a top-level first-choice goalkeeper is almost inevitable.

He’s also impressed at the international level with a clean sheet accompanying half of his 10 caps, with one of those coming in a 3-0 win against Scotland.

Mark Travers is the group's ‘middle child’ by age. The 23-year-old from Maynooth has undoubtedly shown glimpses of his talent, even if competition from Aaron Ramsdale, Asmir Begović and now Neto means Travers has had to be patient at AFC Bournemouth.

Then 19 years and 351 days old, Travers caught the eye when he became the top flight’s 15th youngest goalkeeper of all time in May 2019, making a fantastic save to deny a Dele Alli header in a 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur.

He is now on 14 Premier League appearances, 11 of which have come this season when Neto has been unavailable. In a season where the bottom of the Premier League table is incredibly congested, that includes a clean sheet during a vital victory over Everton. 

Even so, Travers showed last season that he can perform consistently across an arduous Championship campaign, making 45 league appearances and keeping 20 clean sheets as the Cherries finished second to earn promotion to the top tier.

The high level of competition has also had an impact on Travers’ play time for Ireland, with the most recent of his three caps coming in a 3-2 friendly defeat against Serbia in March 2021.

As noted by Gilmartin, the three goalkeepers all have one thing in common. “I think there is a lot to be said for the initial sacrifice Irish players have to make to move across to the UK and make it happen for themselves,” he says. “It is a huge mental shift when you move across to the UK and move away from your close family and friends. 

“I feel this is a big advantage when used in the right way and allows you to fully commit and focus in the important development years of your career. This is evident in the work ethic and application I have experienced from working with the goalkeepers like Gavin, Caoimhin, and Mark.”

The exciting thing for the nation is that there could also be further options for Kenny to choose from. “It is very pleasing to see the next group of U21s goalkeepers progress in their games,” Gilmartin says. “Brian Maher doing very well at Derry City, Luke McNicholas excelling at Sligo Rovers and David Harrington has earnt himself a move to League One Fleetwood Town where I expect he will do very well.”

As Gilmartin puts it: “Long may the impressive flow of goalkeepers continue.”

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