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Evan Ferguson’s hat-trick was a coming of age performance

Evan Ferguson’s foray into English football with Brighton appeared gradual. For many a neutral and rival fan, it could be easy to believe he appeared from nowhere as just another example of the Seagulls’ stunningly effective recruitment from unfashionable markets.

By the time he scored a hat trick against Newcastle at the AMEX Stadium on Saturday evening, everybody had long been made aware of his quality. It was a coming of age performance for a player who, at the age of just 18, has long looked at home in the Premier League. But in the aftermath, all the talk turned to the fact that Ferguson will be the next man to follow in the footsteps of Marc Cucurella, Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo in making a big money move to a top club next summer.

Tottenham were linked this summer, and he certainly fits the profile as they search for Harry Kane contingency plan rolls on. He grew up supporting Manchester United back in the Republic of Ireland, while Chelsea, who signed both Cucurella and Caicedo, are unlikely to be too far away when the speculation undoubtedly intensifies.

But Chelsea should know all about him anyway. It was back in 2019 when, aged 14, Ferguson made his Bohemians debut against the Blues in a pre-season friendly. His performance drew national attention, but for those who knew him best growing up at St Kevin’s Football Club, who had a partnership with Bohemians, it came as no surprise, even if there were some fears from within the staff that he was being exposed to too much too soon. In terms of his intelligence as a person and a player, he always stood out, scoring goal after goal against some of Europe’s best academies and making himself known to the chairman in a manner that suggested he was confident beyond his years.

Clubs were aware of him; Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United all made contact but in 2021, he moved to Brighton. In the same way Ansu Fati’s loan move, confirmed last week, shows the Seagulls’ pull at first team level, their capture of a 16-year-old Ferguson showed their reputation precedes them for youth talent too. The player’s English family allowed him to sidestep a Brexit rule that has stopped talent being imported at that age; said rule is having a lasting and damaging impact on the quality and regularity of Irish talent emerging. That only furthers the intensity of the hype around Ferguson.

Coaches close to him have said they see bits of Wayne Rooney in his game, and bits of Kane too. His movement, understanding and physicality are so impressive for someone at his age, which feels ominous going forward, and every goal he scored on Saturday showed the variety in his skill set.

The first goal came from Newcastle’s own mix up in defence. Nick Pope’s clearance saw the ball come back in the second phase of play; another poor clearance led to a rasping long-range shot from Pervis Estupiñan, which Pope could only parry straight into the path of Ferguson, who was on his toes and ready to pounce like a true goal scorer. The way he dropped deep into the space too often vacated between Newcastle’s defence and midfield to meet a deft touch from Pascal Gross before shooting into the bottom corner showed how varied and modern his game is.

His third was fortuitous, taking a huge deflection, but he had earned that luck. He stretched a rather immobile Newcastle back-line in both directions, dictating where they moved and opening up space for others. It was a performance to be marvelled at.

There are so many clubs who would love to sign Ferguson. After years of number 9s being unfashionable, they are making a comeback, but players like him offer so much mote than a goal threat. Brighton know what they have, they also know when is best to let go; Ferguson will not spend his entire career on the South Coast and that is in nobody’s plan.

When he does go, it will be for a huge fee, and to a club that will allow him to fulfil the potential that those who saw him play from a young age always knew he had.

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