Expectation soars as Evan Ferguson captures Irish footballing imagination
A beacon of hope for Irish football.
On the the night that Evan Ferguson announced himself on the international stage, by scoring after just 17 minutes, he not only secured his place in Stephen Kenny's starting XI for the visit of France, but simultaneously caught the imagination of the Irish footballing public.
Even in the build up to the game, it was patently obvious as to who the star of the show was going to be, with the furore around the prodigious striker reaching a fever pitch before the referee's whistle had even blown.
On nights gone by, as Ireland faced off against uninspiring opponents lacking the necessary big-names needed to transition the sofa watcher to the match goer, the Aviva Stadium would have resembled Elland Road circa 2008 - only the hardcore's in attendance.
However, over 41,000 spectators crammed into the environs of Landsdowne Road despite the torrential downpours, not due to the boundless optimism gained from a last-gasp win over Armenia in September, but rather, the pre-announced presence of a certain 18-year-old attacker.
In the lead up to the fixture which served little purpose other than fulfilling pre-ordained broadcasting obligations, Stephen Kenny announced that Evan Ferguson would indeed be making his maiden international start.
Usually unwaveringly coy regarding team selection, the openness with which Kenny admitted to the former Bohs striker's presence in the starting XI just further emphasises the esteem to which the striker is held, in a move which was also surely influenced by the newly-rebranded Ireland Football marketing department.
A presence unmatched
From 7.45pm on Wednesday, those present in Dublin 4 underwent a form of collective hypnosis, as 40,000 became one in their unprecedented adulation of a young man who appears to have already garnered the mass hysteria one typically associates with sports' biggest names.
Captivated by every run, pass, touch and challenge, the crowd in attendance engaged in a spate of communal "ooh's" and "ah's" as Ferguson highlighted exactly why his club manager Roberto De Zerbi refers to him as "unique in terms of quality and characteristics".
As the lineups were announced over the tannoy, prior to kick off, it was Ferguson's which undoubtedly received the largest recognition from the Lansdowne Road faithful.
Even as he skewed a number of long range efforts over the bar, his wastefulness was not met with the customary vexation of weathered Irish football fans, but with the rather unique offerings of support and encouragement as those in attendance attempted to will the ever-growing aura surrounding Ferguson to even loftier heights.
Prominent in the build up, a constant threat in behind, willing to run the channels and as ever a nuisance in the air, those who braved the conditions on a wet and wild Wednesday night were rewarded for the buoyant atmosphere they created, as Ferguson treated them to a full exhibition of his footballing attributes.
Not only did the Brighton youngster notch his first international goal by prodding home Michael Obafemi's pull back, but he also laid off a perfectly weighted ball out wide to Matt Doherty in the build up to Callum O'Dowda's sixth minute opener, thus capping off what was a Hollywood scripted full debut.
Anticipation to expectation
The performance delivered by Evan Ferguson does little to assuage the burgeoning pressure being placed on his 18-year-old shoulders though, instead merely remoulding the previous sense of anticipation surrounding the striker into what is perhaps an even heavier cross to bare- that of expectation.
Having now highlighted to the nation that his scintillating domestic form can be recreated on the international stage, Ferguson has immediately vaulted past the quintessential 'bedding in' period afforded to newly-capped players, and instead taken on the mantle of solving Ireland's near-decade-long absence of a prolific goalscorer.
Many have come before the Meath native in attempting to rectify the national team's goalscoring woes. From Troy Parrott, to Adam Idah and even the now seemingly forgotten figure of Aaron Connolly, a generation's worth of attacking talent have tried and failed to replace the void left by Robbie Keane's retirement almost seven years ago.
But, in the intangible sense that only a football fan could truly understand, Evan Ferguson appears to be cut from a different cloth. Whether it be scoring against Arsenal, assisting against Liverpool, or sending his Brighton side to just their third ever FA Cup semi final, the young striker seems to continually rise to the occasion.
There is no occasion bigger than Monday night though, as the consecutive World Cup finalists roll into town with a star-studded ensemble headed by perhaps the biggest name of them all, Kylian Mbappé.
Should the 18-year-old take on a leading role in the slaying of Didier Deschamps' imperious French side, the expectation now placed upon Ferguson will morph yet again- only this time to a sort of incredulous deification.
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