Evan Ferguson has plenty of role models in his quest to eventually become Brighton and Hove Albion’s No 9.
The position is back in fashion again. Internally, Ferguson has Danny Welbeck to look up to. Externally, he has Erling Haaland at Manchester City, England captain Harry Kane at Tottenham, Ivan Toney at Brentford, and Darwin Nunez at Liverpool.
“There was a period where there was false nine and the tens,” says Ferguson, who signed a new contract on his 18th birthday last week which will last until June 2026. “I think teams work best with a proper No 9, someone they can rely on.
“If I’m told to play in a different position I’ll play it — and you have to know how to play different positions — but I prefer being that striker.”
Ferguson’s ambition, by the end of his new deal, is to have succeeded 31-year-old Welbeck in spearheading Brighton’s attack.
“In training I’m looking at him every day,” says the Republic of Ireland prospect. “Trying to learn off him and trying to get bits of what the gaffer wants, what he thinks is good and what he thinks is bad.
“If you look at Haaland now, it’s just the different types of movements to different situations. And when the midfielder gets on the ball, different ways to find space, little things like that.”
Delighted to have signed a new deal with the club 💙 https://t.co/4PQW7gdtiU
— Evan Ferguson (@Evan_Ferguson9) October 19, 2022
Penalties are customarily a profitable way for a No 9 to boost their goal tallies. Haaland and Toney both demonstrated their expertise in that sphere in Brighton’s latest two defeats.
Seven of the combined 35 goals scored by Haaland (17), Kane (10) and Toney (8) this season have been from the spot. There’s a strong argument for Toney’s inclusion in the England squad for Qatar as cover for Kane purely on the basis of penalties.
They’re a subject that’s still raw and sore for Ferguson, although missing a crucial penalty for his country may turn into a blessing in disguise when it comes to learning to cope with the ups and downs of a football career.
The trajectory had been almost exclusively upwards until last month, when Ferguson missed from the spot for Republic of Ireland Under-21s against Israel in a play-off to qualify for next year’s European Championship.
Ferguson had scored with a header in a 1-1 draw in the home leg but picked up a slight ankle injury, which restricted him to the bench for most of the second leg.
Head coach Jim Crawford brought him on in place of Brighton team-mate Aaron Connolly — on loan for the season to Venezia in Serie B — for the second period of extra-time.
A 0-0 draw took the tie to a penalty shootout, which Ireland lost 3-1. Ferguson’s penalty, down the middle, was saved by Israeli keeper Daniel Peretz, who also foiled two of his colleagues and scored one himself.
Ferguson is consoled by Ireland Under-21 assistant manager John O’Shea after losing to Israel on penalties (Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
“It was horrible,” Ferguson says. “I hit it and then you see that the ‘keeper is just there. I was just gutted, but I think it was good for me. Some of the coaches when I came back said it could be a good thing in the future, just to see how you bounce back.
“First of all, I was beating myself up about it, but coming back here and chatting to the coaches helped me. I’ve been practising my penalties a lot more.
“I’d missed before, but not a really important one like that. It’s trying to get your technique right, doing the same thing every time, so I’ve been practising that. Hopefully I won’t be missing the next one.”
Ferguson has responded since that setback by scoring for Brighton’s under-21s in a 3-2 defeat at Gillingham in the Football League Trophy and in a 3-3 league draw at Manchester United, his 18th goal in 35 appearances for the club at junior levels.
United were one of the clubs tracking him when Ferguson was making waves growing up back in Dublin. He also had trials with Liverpool, Everton and Celtic.
Attention mounted after Ferguson, a product of St Kevin’s Boys club in Dublin, made a substitute appearance for neighbours Bohemian as a 14-year-old in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea in a pre-season friendly in July 2019.
“That’s when it all kicked off,” he says. “(Kurt) Zouma was playing, (Trevoh) Chalobah, Pedro. Billy Gilmour (now a Brighton team-mate) was playing actually, it was (Frank) Lampard’s first game as the manager.
“I don’t remember much about it. It went very quickly.”
Almost as rapidly as Ferguson’s progression at Brighton since signing as a 16-year-old in January 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic regulations, where, at first, he was only permitted to travel between his accommodation on the south coast and the training complex in Lancing.
“Coming over, I had to work on defending from the front and trying to block passes off,” says Ferguson. “As time has gone on I think I’ve improved on it.
“The 23’s manager now, Shannon Ruth, went through clips and showed me what I could do better — different ways to press.”
It’s still early days for Ferguson in gaining first-team experience. He scored as a starter in a 3-0 win at Forest Green Rovers in the Carabao Cup in August but has yet to add to his only Premier League appearance for Brighton, which came as a second-half substitute in a 3-0 defeat by Burnley at the Amex Stadium in February under Graham Potter.
Ferguson scoring against Forest Green Rovers in August 2022 (Photo: Alex Burstow via Getty Images)
Potter’s successor, Roberto De Zerbi, referring to Ferguson’s new contract, says: “He’s very young. I’m happy for him, but for the moment he’s not in the first XI.
“He needs to improve, he needs to grow. My history as a coach is that I’ve always worked with young players, but I don’t like speaking about too young, too old — I prefer to speak about good player, not good player. (Adam) Lallana isn’t young (34), but I like working with him.”
De Zerbi is also under contract until June 2026, so it might be that Ferguson grows with the Italian at Brighton and indeed becomes their next Danny Welbeck.
(Top photo: Alex Burstow via Getty Images)
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