Written by Peter Lynch
Northern Ireland don’t just have to rely on their main men anymore, despite the fact that they really are on top form already this season. The national team forwards have simply been unstoppable just a few games into the season, whether it be in England or indeed north of the border in Scotland, with Kyle Lafferty already enjoying himself back home with Rangers.
The formidable forward bagged a goal and an assist at former club Hearts before his move to Ibrox and found the net twice on his league debut in a 3-3 draw with Motherwell in late August. Back down in England and it’s Liam Boyce, Will Grigg and Josh Magennis setting their respective leagues alight, with Boyce grabbing four in League One already this season for Burton, along with a Carabao Cup winner against Aston Villa. Magennis and Grigg meanwhile have been busy for Bolton and Wigan respectively in the Championship, with three goals apiece.
And yet, seemingly slipping under the radar, there may be another forward chomping at the bit to earn the adoration of the Green and White Army. Oxford United’s Gavin Whyte has hit the ground running with his new club in League One and has now scored three goals since earning a deserved move from Irish Premiership outfit Crusaders. The forward has been crucial to his side’s performances this season and sits atop the top goal scorer list at the club, form which has won him a call-up to the Northern Ireland national team alongside several of his heroes.
Playing the entirety of his youth football with Crusaders, the 22-year-old pushed himself to an inevitable move across the water, having bagged 23 goals in his last campaign, where he not only won his third Northern Ireland Football League title and the County Antrim Shield but was voted the Ulster Footballer of the Year along with the Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year award for 2017/18. Having already become a fan favourite just weeks into his Oxford career, Whyte now has it all ahead of him for both club and country, and may just be a name to remember in the not too distant future.
It isn’t looking quite as bright for Northern Ireland’s noisy neighbors south of the border, however, whose UEFA Nations League preparations have been overshadowed by all the talk surrounding the up and coming Declan Rice, West Ham’s versatile youth prospect, who has been given time to decide where his loyalties lie in a simply outrageous rule. The 19-year-old has caused quite a stir with both sets of fans from the Republic of Ireland and England, where despite representing the former from under 16 level all the way through to the first team of the national side – where he has picked up three appearances – the London-born defensive player has now attracted interest from his native nation.
It isn’t, however, all doom and gloom, particularly for the Republic as there may be a guiding light on the way in the coming years. Having already shone throughout his youth for the national side, Portsmouth striker Ronan Curtis is well on the way to earning that first international call-up, with the in-form forward looking livelier than most this season.
After an impressive couple of years with Derry City in the League of Ireland, Curtis is another who has hit the ground running for his new club, having left hundreds of hearts broken at his former side, who are undeniably missing the pace and power of their beloved forward. Derry’s progress has simply come to a halt since Portsmouth signed the player on a two-year deal for a fee of around £100,000, and while the 22-year-old may certainly feel a great deal of empathy for the club that gave him his big break, he simply hasn’t looked back.
It may have been the phenomenal hat-trick that the Republic man managed in his side’s 7-3 destruction of Shelbourne to send Derry City into the semi-finals of the competition – with the club soon battling it out with Cobh Ramblers in the final later this month – that convinced Pompey to take the plunge, and the club, much like Curtis, undoubtedly have no regrets. The athletic attacker has taken League One by storm in such a short space of time, with five goals and three assists to his name, including well-taken braces at Blackpool and most recently at home to Plymouth Argyle.
His fine form has earned him another call-up to the Republic of Ireland under-21 squad for their European Championship Qualifying ties with Kosovo and Germany, where he will look to carry his goalscoring feats with him to assert his side’s top two positions in Group E. Gavin Whyte meanwhile has advanced one step further than the Portsmouth forward by earning a place within Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland squad for their upcoming UEFA Nations League encounter with Bosnia, with the former Crusaders man eager to impress the boss and indeed a Windsor Park crowd that now expect the highest quality from their national heroes.
In an aging Northern Ireland squad containing the likes of veteran defenders Gareth McAuley and Aaron Hughes among several others, Whyte undoubtedly looks set to be the one to shine brightest within a new generation of national players. And while Curtis may not quite be in contention for a role within Martin O’Neill’s Republic squad just yet, a call-up cannot be far away should his club form continue.
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Ironically, the stunning form of both young men has coincided with the somewhat disastrous form of their former employers, with Derry City suffering from a severe end of season crisis in the League of Ireland, while Irish Premiership champions Crusaders simply haven’t reached second gear despite the fact that they are now well into the defence of their league title. This is, however, no mere coincidence, and plainly shows just how crucial these players were to their respective sides, and just how much they miss them.
Both Curtis and Whyte will be desperate to continue their fine form into September for club and country, regardless of whatever level they are representing, and both have proven that such small and often ignored nations can often produce talent that, if given the right opportunity, can thrive under new and unfamiliar environments. Moreover, despite wishing the two the very best across the water, their previous managers are sorely missing their star players this season.
Gavin Whyte Image via The Boot Room
Declan Rice Image via The Times
Ronan Curtis Image via Portsmouth News
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