Robert Cornwall remembers thinking, “We need a 14-year-old to come in and create opportunities,” as he reflects on the night when Evan Ferguson made his debut for Bohemians against Chelsea. While his fellow teammates, including Cornwall, were not shocked by the young striker’s impressive performance, it was a blow to their ego to be outshined by someone much younger.
After four years, Ferguson has emerged as one of the most promising players in the Premier League. His hat-trick against Newcastle last September solidified his reputation, and he will be looking to increase his goal count against Everton this Saturday, following his recent goal against Fulham. Last season, he scored in a 4-1 victory against Everton, who were then managed by Frank Lampard, just like they were during his debut.
The day was highly anticipated as Bohemians hosted Lampard’s Chelsea at Dalymount Park, giving fans a chance to witness one of the top teams in the Premier League firsthand. Despite Chelsea’s lead with a goal from Michy Batshuayi, Bohemians manager Keith Long surprised everyone by bringing on Evan Ferguson in the final 20 minutes. This changed the mood from a casual friendly match to curiosity about the young player’s abilities. According to Cornwall, Ferguson dominated the game.
Ferguson dummied the ball to help Eric Molloy to equalise late on, a sign of the intelligence he offered despite his age. Cornwall and his teammates had witnessed for a while what Ferguson could do in training.
“Our manager had a talent for nurturing young players,” Cornwall recalls. “He was a recognizable figure. I believe he was 13 or 14 years old when he joined us for a recovery session focused on passing drills, but he quickly caught everyone’s attention. From then on, he started training with us more regularly. Even at the age of 14, he was already the same height as me, 6 feet tall, but a bit thinner. He had a mature presence, even at such a young age.”
“Once he proved his skill, he joined the team and things progressed from there. He made his debut and consistently trained with us, impressing everyone.”
The transition from a promising young player to a starter in the Premier League has been brief. He joined Brighton at the age of 16 and quickly made his competitive debut in a League Cup win against Cardiff. Last season marked his true breakthrough, as he played in 19 league matches and scored six goals, and also made his first appearance for the Republic of Ireland.
Cornwall, as a centre-back, should in theory have had the job of to teaching Ferguson how to cope with the rigours of coming up against senior professionals. It did not quite work out that way. “After he signed to leave, a couple of the lads were doing interviews about him and they were saying I was one of the stronger players on the team as a centre-half and it was one of my attributes, and they were saying I used to get bounced off and put on my arse by Evan,” Cornwall says.
What impressed me was his movement during our training and small-sided games. He consistently made runs and positioned himself at the back post, always ending up in front of me when the ball was delivered.
“He consistently attacked from the front post, so I decided to try using my body there the next time. However, he switched to the back post and I couldn’t catch up with him. I complimented his impressive movements and urged him to keep it up. I had assumed it would be an easy training session against a 14-year-old, but his movement was the biggest challenge. And then, his finishing was also impressive, using both his left and right foot to hit snapshots that always aimed for the bottom corner, constantly challenging the goalkeeper. I was amazed by how advanced he was for his age.”
Ferguson played in four games for Bohemians, but it was clear that he would not stay there for very long. Moving on to the Premier League seemed like the logical next move for a player who turned down many offers before deciding that Brighton was the best place for his development. Ferguson’s father, Barry, began his career at Coventry but spent most of it in Ireland, and he helped his son stay grounded while there was a lot of buzz surrounding him.
“The club received some criticism at the time for allowing a 14-year-old to train with the first team and be in the dressing room with adults. However, this was not the case as the player was mature and composed. He never acted like he was above anyone else when training with us, but instead had a positive attitude and worked hard to showcase his talent. This mindset has contributed to his success.”
Worries that Ferguson would become arrogant and abandon his humble beginnings with Bohemians proved to be unfounded. He remains connected with his roots and those who witnessed his performance against Chelsea will likely always remember it.