The phrase "generational talent" is tossed about all too frequently these days but, in Irish terms at the very least, Evan Ferguson fits that bill.
Earmarked as a star in the making at the age of just 14, when he made his debut for Bohemians in a mid-season friendly against Chelsea, Ferguson has gone from strength to strength since moving to Brighton just over a year later.
January 2021 saw him move to the south coast and, two years on, he is a first team player, and scorer of two goals in two Premier League games. Ireland's next footballing star has been born but, for anyone who has been tracking the exciting career of Evan Ferguson thus far, it should be no surprise.
Former Millwall and Sheffield United midfielder Mark Beard was head of the under-18s team at Brighton when Evan Ferguson arrived in January of 2021, and spoke to Balls this week about the Meathman's exciting potential.
Beard compared Ferguson to some of the best players of recent times and said that, from the minute he stepped foot on a pitch in Brighton, he knew that the ex-Bohs man was destined to become one of the best.
Former coach sees Evan Ferguson going to the very top
Evan Ferguson began his career at Bohemians, making a remarkably early debut at the age of just 14 in a friendly against no lesser opposition than Premier League side Chelsea. Talk about a baptism of fire.
He would go on to work himself into regular contention at Dalymount Park, earning plenty of attention from Premier League clubs across the water.
All the while, however, a relationship was being built with the south coast Seagulls.
Mark Beard - now head coach at Dorking Wanderers - tells us that Ferguson would regularly travel over for training camps with the Brighton under-18s, from as young as 14 years old. Beard says that his impact was instant, and that his physicality was far ahead of what the youth staff would have expected from a 14-year-old.
The story of Ferguson's first ever session at Brighton, on one of those regular training camp visits, is an example of why there was such a clamour to sign him:
From the age of 14 - when I was running the U-18s - everyone was coming over during half-terms. When half-term would come, we'd know everyone would come over here, train with us for a week. Now, you wouldn't get any other 14 year-olds training with an under-18s team.
I remember his first session with us. He joined in a session and I remember one of the goals he scored - I don't remember any goals in training, but this one stood out! One of the boys running down the line whipped it in, it was a crowded box with about five players. He's jumped in the air and Cruyffed it into the top corner. Everyone around him was clapping.
Beard worked with plenty of other young Irish players who made their first foray into English football at Brighton, such as Jayson Molumby, Aaron Connolly, and Andy Moran.
He and his youth staff had to fight off plenty of other interested parties to acquire Ferguson's services when he departed Bohs, but Beard said that he hit the ground running when he did sign full time.
His first training session was an indicator that he meant business, even at such a young age. As much as Beard praises Ferguson's footballing and physical capabilities, he notes his excellent attitude and hard work, as exemplified by his desire to keep pushing for extra training sessions:
From day one, from the minute he was full time with us, I said to someone the other day - after a session he asked to do a bit of extra shooting. I did a shooting session with him and I was just blown away with what he could do. Obviously, when you're doing shooting, shots are going everywhere - every single one, left foot - bang! - right foot - bang! Laces - goal! Volleys - goal! Any type of header, coming in the box, headers outside the box, volley, half volley. Anything that came to him was going in.
This was at 16 years of age! There was once when I was acting as a defender and someone played it into him. He just managed to hold me off, spin, shoot. I used to be a really good defender and I thought I'd try to get my body in - his elbow into me nearly broke my ribs!
The strength Beard describes could be seen with Ferguson's first ever Premier League goal last week - against league leaders Arsenal, no less.
The goal Ferguson scored (at 1:44 in the below video) showcased his strength against William Saliba, widely renowned as one of the league's standout defensive performers this season.
Highlights of Brighton 2-4 Arsenal.
Arsenal took a 3-0 lead thanks to goals by Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Eddie Nketiah before Kaoru Mitoma pulled one back.
Gabriel Martinelli got Arsenal's 4th before Evan Ferguson added Brighton's second. pic.twitter.com/VxPcfMl5IX
— FT90Extra ⚽ (@FT90Extra) December 31, 2022
It's clear Ferguson has confidence - but do not mistake that for arrogance.
The Bettystown native has his feet firmly planted on the ground - and Mark Beard tells us that the youngster almost doesn't know just how much potential he holds:
From the first day, you could see. The good thing is he's a humble lad. I don't know whether he realises how good he is. He takes everything in his stride, he's not phased by anything. That really showed the other night on his debut.
He's really good at learning, you only need to tell him once which is a great trait to have. That's probably why he's gotten into the first team environment so quickly and the Irish national team.
Ferguson seems set up well to avoid the fate that has befallen so many players over the years. We have seen players like Dele Alli and Ravel Morrison drop dramatically in performance, or run into trouble off the pitch, after bursting onto the scene at a young age.
The ability to keep himself grounded will no doubt stand to Evan Ferguson as he continues to progress, and Beard gives immense credit to his family for creating the right environment for him to flourish from a young age.
And, of course, it will not all be plain sailing. He may be the most exciting young Irish talent in recent memory but he is still just that - a prospect. He is not the finished article yet, and it will be some time before he is, and Beard says it is important for Irish fans to temper their expectations as Ferguson continues to develop under Roberto de Zerbi at Brighton:
I always remember one game against Southampton at U-17 away in the quarter-final. It was the furthest the club had gone. He scored a goal, but he didn't have a great half.
Because he had come straight over from Ireland - still at school age - he was literally thrust into the 23s, then he was playing every game possible.
It is important that we don't flog him - we said that. Don't burn him out, you see it with these young stars. You get to 19 or 20 and start getting serious injuries.
He's got the talent, he's got the ability to be world class...you'll have to be patient with him. When you get catapulted into the stardom as it's just happened, you've just got to be patient with him and not rush him. He's going to have bad games. You'll get a fan who will come to one game, see him play, doesn't have a great game, and think he's not what he's hyped up to be.
He is, and he will be, and the cream will really rise to the top on this one.
Despite all of the reservations and warnings to give Ferguson time to develop, this assertion of world class potential from someone who led his development from a young age is undoubtedly one of the most exciting statements about Irish football we've heard in some time.
Everything he has done so far would back up such brave statements - a senior debut at 14, a Premier League starter, goalscorer, and Ireland senior international at 18. It feels as though Ferguson has been around for a long time - but, really, he is only getting started.
It feels as though Evan Ferguson is destined for the top, if he keeps himself in the right zone over the coming years. Beard, for one, thinks the sky is the limit for this young Irishman.
Despite their slightly different positioning on the pitch, Beard makes kind comparison between Ferguson and tragic Manchester United legend Duncan Edwards, before saying that he feels he can surpass the heights of even Ireland's greatest ever goalscorer.
Someone said to me recently - you only get these kinds of talents once every ten years or so. I know Ireland have had a lot of very good players, but you must be very excited for what you've got here.
Evan's the biggest player I have seen who could go on and reach superstardom.
Duncan Edwards could play anywhere and be the best player on the pitch...what I'm saying about Evan is that he is the complete player.
Robbie Keane was great at running behind, dribbling - I wouldn't say he was a hold up player. Evan is a more complete player. He could go into midfield or on the wing, and he would know his role.
I think he can have an unbelievable career.
It's hard not to feel a flurry of excitement thinking about how far Evan Ferguson can push on if he continues in this vein of form in years to come. Mark Beard feels that the set up surrounding him at Brighton is the ideal one for him to flourish, and feels that Ireland's coaching staff are also taking the right approach to his development.
All has gone to plan so far, but the road is still long for Evan Ferguson. We can only hope that the path to stardom is the one we see this hugely exciting prospect go down in years to come but, judging by what he has done in the infancy of his career so far, it feels as though the sky is the limit for this brilliant Irishman.