For any Southampton fans feeling slightly nervous about a 20-year-old goalkeeper starting in the Premier League, here’s a story that might reassure you…

July 19, 2018.

Shamrock Rovers are in Stockholm to face AIK in the first qualifying round of the Europa League. Level at 1-1 on aggregate with moments left to play, an exhausted Shamrock Rovers team are attempting to take the tie to extra-time.

Enter 16-year-old Gavin Bazunu…

“Ice cold,” former Shamrock Rovers teammate Luke Byrne laughs. “I remember him just killing the game, taking the ball out to the corner of the box, pretending to pick it up, enticing the striker to get booked for kicking him. I was just thinking ‘he’s 16, this is not normal what he’s doing.’ How calm he was before the game, how calm he was on the ball, I knew after that this kid’s gone, he’s just way too good.”

“Because he was so young you might think the big games could get to him but they didn’t," then-Shamrock striker Sean Boyd says. "It was just smooth sailing for the kid, he was absolutely fantastic. It was funny, he was a calming presence in the team as a 16-year-old which is madness when you think about it!”

Still not convinced? How about this tale from 19-year-old Bazunu…

Week of January 9, 2021.

Over seven defensively torrid days, Bazunu concedes 10 goals across three matches as his first spell in English football with Rochdale threatens to spiral into a cloud of negativity amidst a backdrop of unrest inside the club.

Frustrated by conceding more than he is willing to allow himself, the Irish international spends his time watching film with the Rochdale analyst, constantly attempting to get better.

Daily Echo: Bazunu in action for Rochdale. Image by: PABazunu in action for Rochdale. Image by: PA

“4-4 at Charlton, 3-3 vs Crewe, yeah he was angry but he’s controlled - that’s what he’s really really good at,” then Rochdale goalkeeping coach Dave Timmins explains. “He’d be disappointed, but he channels it in the right.

“That’s what it’s about - it’s how you react to it and learn from it. And because of the type of person he is, that’s not a problem. Bang that’s done, let’s move on. His mistakes are rare but he gets frustrated in the right way, his first thought is ‘alright, what can we do to get better? What can we do to stop that?’

“Even in training, if he did make a mistake, he would immediately want to fix it. The repetition, the habits - he cares and he wants more. He’ll test you as a coach which is good, because he wants more from you, he drives you, you can drive him. He’s got that great balance. Southampton will absolutely love working with him every day because he’ll just want more and more.”

Not quite willing to believe just yet? Let’s try one more…

August 14, 2021.

Gavin Bazunu has been named in the Portsmouth starting XI for the first time, something of an eyebrow-raising call from manager Danny Cowley following fellow goalkeeper Alex Bass’ impressive performance in the opening match while Bazunu battled an injury. Bass, an academy graduate was popular, while Bazunu was still the relative unknown youngster who had conceded 78 goals at Rochdale.

It quickly proved the right decision.

“Alex Bass played quite well but Bazunu came straight in and it was a bit of a talking point whether Bass deserved that,” Jordan Cross, Pompey reporter for The News, Portsmouth, recalls.

“But Pompey fans could quickly see why because Gavin was just excellent. He’s an outfield footballer with his range of passing and Pompey fans quickly saw that. They’ve got this way that’s very popular these days where the goalkeeper passes out and he’d often come out and be very very high, almost a sweeper keeper, take the ball 40 yards out which was higher than Pompey fans had probably ever seen a keeper play before!”

Daily Echo: Bazunu celebrates for Portsmouth. Image by: PABazunu celebrates for Portsmouth. Image by: PA

Scepticism is natural in life and certainly in football but if you need further convincing here are a few anecdotes from those who have played, watched, and coached Bazunu that are…slightly more on the nose.

“You wouldn’t think he’s a 19-year-old, you’d think he’s 26 or 27. I’m really pleased, I think Southampton have done great there.” – Dave Timmins, Bazunu’s goalkeeping coach at Rochdale

“He’s well advanced in terms of his mentality. Some people are a young 20, he’s very much an old 20, a wise 20. When he speaks to the press, when he speaks to the reports he’s eloquent, he’s picked up accolades with the Republic of Ireland.” – Jordan Cross, Portsmouth News

“I always say a goalkeeper, you need to be the smartest person on the pitch, Gavin was always one of those types of people. His education, his maturity, he was just so smart. He was a 17-year old but he was as developed as a 25-year-old. The way he carried himself, the way he had conversations, it wasn’t like dealing with a 17-year-old.” – Abdul Hajji, Bazunu’s U13 Coach at Shamrock Rovers

“Often when a young player comes in to train with the first team, you’re kind of conscious of his age, you allow him a few mistakes because you know he’s obviously young. But with Gavin there was never any of that, you just kind of dealt with him like you’d treat any senior player because he was that mature and that good.” – Luke Byrne, former teammate of Bazunu at Shamrock Rovers

“He took it all in, he was no problem in training, he was calm and calculated. Over time he’s matured but even as a young kid he wasn’t really like a kid. Just his personality, he was mature, he knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go and that was him.” – Sean Boyd, former teammate of Bazunu at Shamrock Rovers

Those who have really gotten to know Gavin Bazunu all agree on one thing: there’s something different about this young player. Boyd, a few years Bazunu’s senior at Shamrock Rovers, now playing for Shelbourne, sums up the sentiment:

“I’ve never come across anything like him, nothing like him. And I’ve played with enough and coached with enough but he’s an outlier. He’s the 0.01%.”

Southampton’s new goalkeeper is just 20-years-old as he approaches his first ever Premier League campaign. That’s a fact. But there’s no need for the ‘just’.

Gavin Bazunu is 20-years-old and that number doesn’t seem to be a problem - as the entirety of his footballing journey from Dublin to Manchester to Rochdale to Portsmouth and finally - to St Mary’s - has shown. 

Daily Echo:

“Do you believe in fate?”

The question is posed by Gavin Bazunu’s first 11-aside coach, Abdul Hajji. Everyone will have their own answer, but in this case, those who watched Gavin from the earliest days have always believed he is following his destiny.

While talent and hard work are constantly highlighted as crucial elements of Bazunu’s path, fate can not be brushed under the rug. Fate, Hajji feels, has led him to Southampton.

After all, the journey could have quite easily ended at age 13. Fast and strong, Bazunu dominated on the left wing in his earliest days training with Shamrock Rovers’ U13s, but his coaches hadn’t brought him in for that.

So when Gavin’s father Green approached Hajji and fellow coach Paul McMahon to tell them his son didn’t want to play in goal anymore, they refused to accept it.

“Paul looked at Green and goes ‘that is not happening,’” Hajji laughs. “So we talked to Gavin and said ‘you’re a goalkeeper’ he said ‘I’m not a goalkeeper, I just happened to be pushed that way, doing favours and stuff.’”

The certainty came from one of those ‘favours’ McMahon happened to see Bazunu take part in. The youngster’s local U14s side Firhouse were up against the adjacent area of Knocklyon. Their opponents needed a victory to win the title while Firhouse, struggling near the bottom of the table, had nothing to play for but pride.

To help out, Bazunu agreed to go in goal. In a life of sliding doors moments, Knockloyn became the first in a long line of collateral damage as Bazunu kept a clean sheet to deny Firhouse’s local rivals the title.

McMahon, who had been watching a game on a nearby pitch, found himself transfixed by the young keeper. Shortly after, Shamrock Rovers revamped their academy including a new U13s programme. Hajji and McMahon’s number one priority was finding the right goalkeeper - and there was only one option.

Thus when they were told Bazunu no longer wanted to be a keeper, there was no way that could be allowed. The talent was too great even if the player took some initial convincing. To help him feel more like a real goalkeeper, the coaches bought Bazunu a pair of gloves, a goalkeeping top that actually fit and a training bag to carry his new stuff.

They knew he was a goalkeeper from the first time they saw him play, they just had to make him sure of it.

“You know when you see a goalkeeper and they’re not a goalkeeper?” Hajji explains. “Their shirt doesn’t match their socks, their shin guards are hanging sideways, their shirt is too big - they don’t look like a goalkeeper! But the saves he made at that young age were remarkable. Gavin laughs about it today!”

Bazunu quickly came to realise he truly was a goalkeeper and his career has flourished at nearly every stage since. Those close to him speak of his parents’ guiding morality as grew up strong-willed yet humble; steadfastly confident but without a drop of cockiness.

Now standing at 6’2”, he was always tall and by the time he arrived at the Shamrock Rovers academy, his hands were bigger than those of his coaches.

“He’d hold the ball with one hand, it was just effortless,” Hajji laughs. “We were unbeaten in the league, won the league, we lost in the cup final. It was just remarkable. After making great saves he would look down and he could feel everybody clapping but he would ignore all of that. I know inside he’d be gassed but on the outside he was always so composed and so focused he wouldn’t want to give off that he’d be delighted. 

“And today he carries that in his character, he makes remarkable saves, people chat about him, but he has a focus - I’m going to remain humble and this is how I’m going to go forward.”

Shamrock Rovers have developed noticeably since Bazunu first arrived intending to play left wing and new state of the art astro-turf pitches have replaced the “patch of grass” Saints’ new signing started on. There was no formal goalkeeping coaching in place, so Hajji made things up as they went with Gavin’s younger brother Todd – now a goalkeeper in the Shamrock academy himself – helping collect the balls that sailed wide in shooting practice.

But that slight opening – in the relative wilderness of Irish football and in an environment far less professional that he’d face going forward - was all he needed.

“That’s why I asked if you believe in fate,” Hajji continues. “If you carry yourself in the right way and work hard you’ll get the recognition at the right time and at the right place and with the right people.”

Ahead of the 2017/18 season, Luke Byrne began helping coach the Shamrock Rovers U15s alongside his place in the senior squad. Bazunu had long been earmarked as the U15s goalkeeper and a focal point of the young Rovers side but in a remarkable twist that matches the rest of Bazunu’s rise, Byrne spent more time with him as his teammate than pupil.

Daily Echo: Bazunu playing for Shamrock Rovers. Image by: PABazunu playing for Shamrock Rovers. Image by: PA

Byrne, like most who have had the pleasure of watching Bazunu grow, knew he was special from the start.

“Within a matter of a couple of months he had progressed through the 15s to the 17s and he was the U19s goalkeeper. I think that showed early on how promising he was, how much potential he had and how much the club rated him to promote him that quickly Then he began to train with the first team at the age of 16, in with us every day and it was just so obvious how good he was.”

Brought in for his goalkeeping, the first thing that stood out to his professional teammates was his footballing ability as a whole.

“He actually used to train sometimes in possession drills as an outfield player,” Byrne continues. “If there was no need for an extra goalkeeper, so you got to see his ability on the ball really quickly and that was eye-catching.”

Both Byrne and Boyd acknowledge that many youngsters who step into the world of professional football for the first time tend to fit into the extremes on the scale of daunted to arrogant. Not Bazunu though.

“I just remember he was obviously a big boy, he was tall, but he actually hadn’t filled out yet,” Sean Boyd recalls. “He was a bit gangly but he was good, he was confident, he came in trained, there were no problems with him being on your team or anything like that. He was a great kid, he loved training, he loved the older players - he took bits off the older players. From the very start, he was a great kid, the whole dressing room took a good liking to him, he fit right in.”

It was a tough season for Shamrock Rovers, emphasised most in their goalkeeping department. Poor form from the two keepers ahead of him eventually convinced manager Stephen Bradley to trust his gut and throw Bazunu into the deep end.

“There was never any talk of being worried about him,” Byrne says of the Shamrock players’ reaction. “We were probably a little bit surprised the first time he was named in the team because it’s a very brave thing for a manager to do. But to be honest, there was never any apprehension on behalf of the players, it was more just eagerness. We wanted to see how he would get on because we could see how good he was in training and we just wanted to see how that would translate to a competitive, professional environment. He was only 16 and with each game he got better and you realised we had a special special keeper on our hands.”

This whole story is something of a fairytale, each new challenge swept aside in the most impressive and dramatic ways. Bazunu’s breakthrough into the Rovers first team was no different as he kept three clean sheets in his first three games.

Then his side travelled South to face title-chasing Cork City. With an hour on the clock, former West Ham and Bolton centre-back Joey O’Brien bundled over a Cork attacker and the referee pointed to the spot. Bazunu’s unbeaten run was staring down the barrell with the ball positioned 12 yards from goal.

Of course, Bazunu saved it.

“A massive moment for the season we were having,” Boyd says with a big smile. “Cork were a big team and down at Turners Cross, it’s not an easy place to play, Gavin would have been for heaps of abuse from the fans behind him. But he’s brave, cool and doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything. Just a calm presence. Joey O’Brien gave away that peno and Joey said after the game that it was the first and only time a goalkeeper bailed him out of trouble - and that was Gavin.

“We knew he was good but then he started to produce amazing moments in big games, elite level goalkeeping. Big moments in big games. And that’s what he is, he’ll stand up to anything.

“Back then when he first broke into the team, he wasn’t fully developed physically, he was in the gym a lot and you could see his body was changing. But when he first got into the team he was still skinny and slight. But he was coming for crosses, he was plucking things out of the air last-minute crosses into the box, he was coming out, killing time. The league is quite physical so people would have said Gavin is a 16-year-old kid, put the ball on top of him and see what he does. But he never shied away, he was always up for a physical fight and he was just excellent. 

“He was commanding, he was loud, he had no problem being loud to  centre-halves double his age! It was just natural to him, that’s just who he is and he knew he had to do it. He’s been brilliant ever since I’ve known him, I can’t speak highly enough of him. He’s been an absolute joy to work with and now to watch.”

Bazunu’s goal was finally breached in the first game of the following season but that did little to quell the building hype around Dublin for this not-yet-adult shot-stopper seemingly doing the miraculous on a regular basis.

Then the world started to take notice with his veteran performance in the Europa League and as Byrne says as soon as that happened “he was gone.” Letters started flooding the Bazunu household from all over England and Scotland with the likes of Celtic, Liverpool and Arsenal all desperate to bring him South. Finally, Manchester City blew them all out of the water, paying more than £400k for the teenager.

“Him going to Man City, it gave belief to every kid in the area,” Hajji says. “If he can do it, why can’t I? Manchester City, the richest club in the world taking a young kid from the council estate. That’s just greatness, being in the Premier League now I promise you it will be something else.”

Gavin Bazunu has never been one to sit still. After all, he left his home at 16 to move countries and enter the pressure cooker of Category 1 academy football. Full of talent and belief, after two years in the Manchester City academy he embarked on his first loan spell to League One Rochdale.

“He backs himself and he probably doesn’t think it’s brave but it is brave,” Rochdale goalkeeping coach at the time Dave Timmins says. “He could sit on his contract at Manchester City and think ‘alright, I’ll go in a couple of years.’ But he’s said ‘no, I want to prove to people what I’m about’ and that’s what he’s doing. Fair play to the young man, he wants to play. Goes to Rochdale and then Portsmouth, he’s not afraid to leave home.”

Jordan Cross echoes the sentiment: “One of the biggest endorsements for Gavin is that he came over from Ireland as a young lad, he’s gone to Manchester City in the Premier League where you get a lot of kids around academies at Premier League clubs who think they’ve made it and they happily just sit there and take that reflective glory of being at that club. But for Gavin to go to Manchester City and then make his first loan Rochdale - which with respect to Rochdale is about as unglamorous as it gets in English football - because it was a move that would help his development, that shows what kind of character Gavin Bazunu is.” 

Timmins arrived at the club halfway through Bazunu’s rather unglamorous first loan spell and as was always the case, it didn’t take the coach long to realise he was working with someone special.

“It was just a pleasure working with him,” Timmins continues. “I’m a 50-year-old coach and he made me feel about 22 because of his enthusiasm and his drive, I loved that. The players loved him at Rochdale, the staff loved him at Rochdale, people behind the scenes had plenty of time for him…not one bad word.

“First impression of Gavin was his presence. He’s got a great presence, in training and around the place. From a technical point of view very clean and tidy, great balance about him, quick getting across his goal, nice clean hands and as a modern day goalkeeper he’s excellent with his feet. His distribution is first class, he’s like a midfielder with gloves!”

Timmins describes Bazunu as a “student of the game” as he recalls the many hours the shot-stopper spent watching film and working on his weaknesses. It paid off too as he earned the first of his ten Ireland caps thus far in March of 2021. Timmins can’t help but see similarities in the confidence and work ethic to another former pupil of his, Joe Hart.

Daily Echo: Bazunu in action for Ireland. Image by: PABazunu in action for Ireland. Image by: PA

“I don’t think he’ll see it as a pressure, he’ll see it as a challenge,” Timmins says of Bazunu’s move to Southampton. “He likes challenges. I think he’ll thrive off of it. It reminds me of Joe, Joe played 50 games in League Two and then got sold to Manchester City and at a young age he was playing in the Premier League. I certainly think Gav can do that because he’ll thrive off that.

"Deep down he’ll probably put pressure on himself, but he’ll see it as a challenge. He’s represented his country so I think that just says everything about him as a person.”

Statistically Bazunu’s time at Rochdale won’t look particularly impressive from the outside but stylistically it was perfect as manager Bryan Barry-Murphy adopted a hyper-progressive system in which Gavin – the midfielder with gloves – was the first port for each possession.

As Rochdale tilted towards eventual relegation, Bazunu was taken out of the firing line for the final nine games of the season but Portsmouth boss Danny Cowley had seen more than enough to make the now-19-year-old his first priority.

“When Gavin had the ball he was capable of launching it 60 yards - accurately. It wasn’t just a lump, it was an accurate ball to the full-backs and Pompey would be right on the front foot straight away thanks to Gavin’s range of passing - it was so important. He’s someone who really has an excellent skillset in terms of passing. But don’t underestimate his goalkeeping as well, his reflexes are excellent and he’s made a number of spectacular saves for Pompey.

“He’s got a wise head on young shoulders. He’s been a consummate professional. He’s articulate, dedicated and very grounded. He’s the kind of lad you just wish to do well. Pompey fans have grown to admire him and I know all about the rivalry but having got to know Gavin I don’t begrudge him the move one bit because he deserves it. He deserves to play regular football at the highest level. And I back him to play goalkeeper in the Premier League at 20.”

Bazunu ended his second season of League One football with 36 appearances as well as Pompey’s Player’s Player of the Year and PFA Team of the Year while many inside the club felt it was fairly scandalous that he was overlooked for the League One Team of the Year.

“When I interviewed him at the end of season awards, the theme of it was that wherever he ends up he wants to be playing,” Cross continues. “He doesn’t want to be hanging around. I think that just speaks to his inner determination and ambition. He’s got a mark of humility about himself as well. Southampton fans will see that, he’s kept himself grounded but there’s an underlying steel and you put those factors together and it just makes you wish he has all the success he deserves.

“Mentality-wise he’s strong. Talent-wise he’s got a lot of talent. He’s got just about the whole package for a modern keeper and that’s hard to find. We ask a helluva lot from keepers these days in terms of having that all-round game and I don’t think I can recall, certainly in the EFL, anyone with the potential to be the goalkeeper Gavin can be. He’s got to be one of the brightest young things in English football.”

In the interest of transparency, I must admit that it was not hard to find people willing to talk about Gavin Bazunu.

“I want people to know how great of a kid he is,” Boyd explains. “He’s not just an amazing goalkeeper, he’s a great person and a great fella. That’s all I can say really.

“Footballers are fickle and ruthless people. But I don’t think you could talk to anyone who knows Gavin that wouldn’t like him. And that’s because of how good of a kid he is and that’s a credit to him and his family.”

“I would say he’s one of the best, if not the best person I’ve met in football,” Byrne adds. “Just in how close he is to his family, how polite he is, how level-headed he is, how serious about his game he is. And as well with young players, sometimes you see them getting a big move or a big contract and you wonder how they’re going to handle the attention, the money, everything that comes with it. But for Gav there would never be any worries.

“I’ve felt for a couple of years that the only thing that would stop him achieving what he wants is injury which would be totally out of his control. The rest, he’s absolutely bullet-proof.”

When reports came out that Bazunu had rejected a new contract at Manchester City in order to move to Southampton, Boyd sent the tweet to Byrne, both of them delighted yet unsurprised to see Gavin remain the same Gavin they had known despite the myriad of awards and international caps.

“He wouldn’t be driven by money, he’d be driven by wanting to progress his career as far as possible and wanting to do as many good things as he can and hopefully at Southamoton he can do that. Keep the Ireland caps coming, get us to a World Cup, get us to the Euros, these would be things Gavin will be looking at and want to do. He’s ambitious and hard-working. He doesn’t want to play U23s or go out on loan again, he wants to put pressure on himself and demand more from himself and test the waters and see how he can go. I was buzzing when I read that because it’s just something not a lot of people would do. People might just sit there and take the money, but fair play to him.”

Following the conclusion of the League One season, Bazunu returned to Ireland where he could be spotted revisiting his roots.

“He’s just such a nice kid, you couldn’t wish it for anyone better,” Byrne says. “Even you see him now, he’s back home. You see Premier League stars jetting off around the world and they have every right to but Gavin’s at home going to Shamrock Rovers matches, going to his little brother’s matches, going back to support the club he played for and supported as a kid. He’s really humble and I couldn’t speak any more highly of him as a person and as a player everyone can see with their own eyes how good he is.”

Once could be random, twice potentially a coincidence, but the glowing referealls from everyone you speak with is not by chance. Bazunu the person – let alone the goalkeeper – is someone that those of every age and background have relished being alongside.

“He’s got a good way about him, how he carried himself, represented himself really well, represented the club really well," Timmins says. "His attitude in training was world class and he’s a student of the game, he just wanted more. Very detailed, he worked very closely with the analyst and the manager and the assistant manager. They had a lot of time for him and he had a lot of time for them but as a young man - he was 18 - very respectful. And to top it all, he’s a very very good goalkeeper.

“He’s very humble and very hard-working. Very very hard-working young man. For me it’s a great signing for Southampton because he’s one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe, playing for his country, he’s played another season in League One at a big club in Portsmouth with fans back, only 20. Southampton have obviously seen a future number one goalkeeper and I think it’s just a great move for Southampton. For Gav himself and for the club.”

“He’ll build good relationship with the staff because he’ll be picking their brains constantly.”

Those who know Gavin also know it may take him some time to adjust to the Premier League and plead for patience with someone they know has a truly elite ceiling. But they also know it may not take him any time at all – after all it hasn’t in the past.

“Playing in the Premier League, it’s a massive step up and it might take him time - but it also might not,” Boyd says. “Going off past experiences so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just took to it like a duck to water. He just always seems to be a calm presence. I’m sure he will make mistakes, that’s just football. The person Gavin is, he’ll learn from them and get better every single day. I have full faith in him going into a Premier League team.”

Whether it happens on day one or after a few months, Gavin Bazunu has been brought in to be Southampton’s goalkeeper of the present and future. And it would seem crazy to doubt him based on the evidence of his fledgling career.

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