Evan Ferguson, the Premier League’s latest teen sensation, will make his first Ireland start in Wednesday’s friendly against Latvia at the Aviva Stadium (7.45pm).
Stephen Kenny confirmed the largely expected news at his pre-match press conference for a game that will act as warm-up for the higher stakes of an opening Euro 2024 qualifier against France next Monday, also at home.
Ferguson swelled his season’s goal haul with Brighton and Hove Albion to seven on Sunday by bagging a brace in the 5-0 FA Cup quarter-final mauling of Grimsby Town, underlining his status as the top performing Irish striker.
The Ireland manager will afford some of his best busier Championship players a rest with a view to the visit of France but the star attraction will be an 18-year-old striker carrying the tournament qualification hopes of a nation.
The control and finish from Evan Ferguson is just a joke! 🇮🇪⚽️😍#COYBIG pic.twitter.com/lu1NLGqw0n— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) March 19, 2023
“Evan’s career is in its infancy,” asserted Kenny, who gave the Bettystown native his first two caps, both as sub, in the November friendlies against Norway and Malta.
“He's had a great start to his Premier League career and is scoring some goals in the Premier League, the FA Cup and League Cup.
“We have known about Evan for a few years now, coming through the system in Ireland with Bohemians and coming through the underage international teams.
“At 18 years of age now, he's showing he is ready to come into the team and he will make his first start tomorrow in the game.”
🚨🇮🇪 Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny confirms that 18-year-old Evan Ferguson will make his first-start tomorrow night pic.twitter.com/z5vlc91PKG— Football Daily (@footballdaily) March 21, 2023
Matt Doherty, who will be relieved of the start after playing just 12 minutes in Spain since his January deadline move to Atlético Madrid, is excited about the quality Ferguson brings to the Ireland attack.
“I haven’t seen all of the games, but from the highlights and the goals he is scoring, he’s got with great composure for someone who is only 18.
“Hopefully it will be the same for this camp, and not only for this camp but for him, personally, for the rest of the season and for the rest of his career, as I am sure he is going to have a good one.”
On his team selection, Kenny intimated the likes of Josh Cullen and John Egan could be held in reserve for the France showdown.
“From our point of view, we've had to manage some players' loads so they can maximise performance against France,” he said.
“Some of the players have been in the top end of the Championship and the FA Cup would have had three games a week for four or five weeks.
“Going again next Monday is probably not the best way of optimising performance so we have to strategically think about that and give other players an opportunity as well to make sure that squad wise we are happy where we want to be on Monday.”
Meanwhile, Doherty has defended Antonio Conte despite his former manager slating his players following their latest capitulation at the weekend, when they allowed a 3-1 lead slip to leave Southampton with just a point.
Doherty, despite being overlooked by the Italian, is against what seems certain to be a parting of ways over the international break.
"Look, I hope he stays for a long time at Tottenham,” said the defender.
“He's an unbelievable coach, an unbelievable manager. He won't say anything in the press that he won't say to his players - completely honest with his players and has the passion for the whole club.
“For me I hope Tottenham stick by him and hold onto him for as long as possible, he's one of the best managers of all time.
"My move in January was meant to be a loan but Spurs had too many. Then, it was a case of I couldn't really say no to that type of experience and a manager of his (Diego Simeone’s) calibre.
“I always like to challenge myself and be uncomfortable at times and it was a similar case there. I didn't have long to think about it but the time I did have, I just couldn't say no “I'm enjoying my time there even though I'm not playing that much.”