Evan Ferguson to Manchester United: Red Devils can't afford to miss out on on Brighton's next £100m man

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The Ireland teenager has exactly what it takes to be one of the best strikers in Europe over the next decade, so United can't afford not to sign him

George Best. Norman Whiteside. Kevin Moran. Roy Keane. Denis Irwin. John O'Shea. Manchester United's history has been written by Irish players. With the obvious exception of England, no country has provided the club with more players than the island of Ireland. A combined total of 75 players from north and south of the border have played for United's first team, forging an army of of fans across the Irish Sea.

When United announced they would play a pre-season friendly with Athletic Club in Dublin in August, the 55,000 tickets for the Aviva Stadium sold out in nine minutes. Every two weeks, thousands of fans make the journey across the Irish Sea to Old Trafford. They are joined by countless other local fans living in Manchester with Irish roots, stemming from the mass immigration to the city in the mid-19th century.

Lately, however, this huge United stronghold have been starved of an idol to call their own. This is as much the fault of Ireland as United's, as few great footballers have come out of the country over the past decade. But there is a new kid on the block from their shores who is shaping up to be one of the best strikers in Europe: an 18-year-old named Evan Ferguson. The Brighton teenager set pulses racing with an exciting breakthrough campaign in 2022-23 and has made a flying start to this season, averaging a goal every 51 minutes.

His next stop is Old Trafford for Saturday's clash with United, the club he and his former footballer father, Barry, both support. And if United have any sense, they will already be taking the steps to make the Theatre of Dreams Ferguson's permanent home...

  1. 'I smell a goalscorer'

    'I smell a goalscorer'

    Three players scored hat-tricks in the Premier League before the international break. There was little surprise about two of the protagonists, Erling Haaland and Son Heung-Min, who have now scored a combined 11 trebles for their respective clubs. There was far more chatter, however, about Ferguson, who plundered three goals against Newcastle in the space of 42 minutes.

    Ferguson's first goal may have been a tap-in, but he showed razor-sharp reactions to pounce after Nick Pope spilled a shot at his feet. His next strike was a demonstration of shooting technique and confidence, taking the ball forward on his own and then curling into the far corner from 25 yards out.

    His hat-trick goal was another shot from outside the area and had a stroke of good fortune as it took a heavy deflection on its way in. But it also spoke of Ferguson's sheer hunger to score and he was rewarded for his audacity.

    "I smell a goalscorer. Eighteen years old, I think he could be a little special," said an excited Gary Lineker on Match of the Day. "I don’t want to get carried away, but I see a hint of Haaland about him."

    Ian Wright, another top striker of yesteryear, was also awe-struck, saying: "He has got everything. Great movement, fantastic first touch, he takes up great positions. He is only going to get better."

    Ferguson would have had every right to brag after his performance, but in his post-match interview he looked remarkably humble. When told that Son and Haaland had also scored hat-tricks, he simply smiled and said: "It's good company to keep."

  2. 'Manboy' and a senior debut aged 14
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    'Manboy' and a senior debut aged 14

    Ferguson was the sixth-youngest player to score a Premier League hat-trick, and in his short career he has developed a reputation for precocious achievements. His senior debut, for example, came at the age of just 14 in a friendly for Dublin side Bohemians against Chelsea in July 2019. Two months later, still 14, he made his competitive debut in the League of Ireland.

    He was 15 when he signed for Brighton and 16 when he began playing and scoring for their Under-23s side. From an early age his physicality always stood out, leading to Brighton staff nicknaming the 6'3 striker 'Manboy'.

    “He’s a special talent who will go right to the top. He’s got that aura about him, without any ego. He can do everything with the ball," Brighton’s former U18s coach Mark Beard told The Athletic. “In my first session with him, he asked to do extras on his own, so I did a shooting session with him. He’s an all-round centre-forward who can shoot with both feet, head, volley, score with his back to goal.

    "I kept testing him but he had no weakness. The two goalkeepers didn’t save one shot in the 10 minutes the session lasted. I have never seen anything like it.”

  3. Intelligent and inventive

    Intelligent and inventive

    Ferguson is far more than just a powerhouse though. As well as being way ahead of his contemporaries physically, he has developed an understanding of the game players do not usually show until they have had several years of experience at the top level.

    Take his goal in the 2-2 draw at Leicester last season, when he timed his run into the box to perfection, evading three defenders to get on the end of Pervis Estupinan's shot and telegraph it in off the post. Former Brighton striker Glen Murray was full of praise in the Sky Sports studio: "He made an incredibly difficult header look very easy — the distance, the angle, the power. He had to generate that power himself. It was just perfect really.

    "His understanding of the game, when to drop it off, when to spin it out, when to hold it up… they’re things that can’t be taught. They’re things that experience brings, but he just seems to have such a good understanding so early."

    Ferguson is also a hugely inventive player. Take his audacious backheel goal against Bournemouth last season or his textbook control and calm finish in the FA Cup quarter-final win over Grimsby Town. The Premier League's all-time top scorer, Alan Shearer, has also given Ferguson his vote of approval.

    "Left foot, right foot, headers, pace, aggression, intuition; there is no obvious weakness to his game, which is only going to get better and better. He has the lot," Shearer told The Athletic. "I love how he can bully defenders. I love his positioning, I love how he’s always asking different questions of the centre-half, either going up against him or, as he did against Newcastle, dropping in short, getting the ball to feet and turning. I love his movement in the box. Perhaps most of all, I love the purity and ferocity of his hunger; how much he craves goals."

  4. Brighton's next big export
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    Brighton's next big export

    Brighton are Europe's kings of the transfer market right now, and their recent business makes United's scattergun approach look particularly embarrassing. The Seagulls have made £363 million ($450m) from transfers in the last two seasons alone, turning a profit of £164m. And remarkably, despite selling their biggest assets, they seem to be getting even better.

    In the summer of 2021, they sold Ben White to Arsenal for £50m ($62m), while the following year they made £62m ($77m) by selling Marc Cucurella to Chelsea and Yves Bissouma to Tottenham for £25m ($31m). Moises Caicedo, picked up for peanuts from Ecuador in January 2021, took Bissouma's place and proved to be a significant upgrade. After resisting a £70m ($86m) bid from Arsenal for the midfielder in January, Brighton sold him to Chelsea this summer for an astonishing £115m ($142m), breaking the Premier League's transfer record.

    Despite the overhaul, they have made another ominous start to the season, thrashing Wolves and Luton 4-1 each, then bouncing back from a disappointing defeat at home to West Ham by outplaying Newcastle. Kaoru Mitoma, Julio Enciso and Solly March have all been influential, but there can be little doubt that their next big-money sale will be Ferguson.

    United, Manchester City and Newcastle have all reportedly stepped up their interest in Ferguson, but Brighton have all the cards. Ferguson recently signed a new contract until 2028 and Brighton will be in no hurry to let him leave, especially after making such a huge transfer profit over the summer.

    Instead, they can watch Ferguson develop even more before eventually cashing in. Brighton already value Ferguson at £120m ($148m) and that was before his tour de force against Newcastle. If he keeps the momentum up, his value could well rise to £150m ($186m)

    "He could not be at a better club at the moment than Brighton under Roberto De Zerbi," said former England striker Chris Sutton on BBC Radio 5Live. "At 18 years old he has great physicality. Just imagine Evan Ferguson in another three or four years with the development he will have."

  5. United's '£50m-plus mistake'
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    United's '£50m-plus mistake'

    United missed out on signing Caicedo in 2021, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was in charge. The Red Devils cited the player's large number of representatives, all of whom wanted a slice of the transfer fee for his potential move from Independiente del Valle, as an obstacle. They also let Ferguson slip through their fingers, also while Solskjaer was in charge. But the reason behind not signing the Irishman is much harder to digest. They simply didn't think he was good enough.

    Ferguson has revealed that he had trials at a number of top clubs before joining Brighton, including Liverpool, Celtic and United. According to Sky Sports News, the Red Devils' head of academy Nick Cox has described their failure to sign Ferguson after the trial as a “£50m-plus mistake”.

    Ferguson would have undoubtedly loved to have signed for United as he supported them as a child, idolising Wayne Rooney. "He had the show ‘Wayne Rooney Street Striker’ so I used to watch him and I used to support United as a kid. I used to watch him and all that and he was just unbelievable," Ferguson told the BBC.

    Ferguson has revealed that he came closest to joining Liverpool, but he envisaged too many obstacles to the first team and was wary of going backwards. It says a lot about him and his father that they chose Brighton instead of the bright lights of Anfield.

    “I went to Liverpool a few times,” Ferguson told The Athletic in June 2022. “It’s a good club, but you see so many boys at Liverpool just fading away and there’s no chance to get in the first team. I was thinking, ‘Do I just want to play two years of Under-18s and then go to the 23s and go from there to where?’ Brighton is a good club. When I came over they were definitely the team I wanted to join.

    "I used to come over to all the clubs with my dad. He had a clue about what was going on so I think he was key. It came down to the fact that if you come to Brighton it's a pathway through. If you go to a team such as Liverpool then they can buy a striker for £60m to £70m."

  6. A concerning knee problem

    A concerning knee problem

    Ferguson's age and physique are showing no signs of holding him back, but one thing that could pose a danger to his exciting career is injuries. He missed three weeks at a crucial stage of last season, including the FA Cup semi-final against United, due to an ankle injury, having already missed a handful of matches with knocks.

    Most concerning, however, is a knee problem that forced him to miss Ireland's recent Euro 2024 qualifiers against France and the Netherlands. At first it was thought that Ferguson had sustained the knee injury following a challenge by Bruno Guimaraes in the Newcastle game, but Ireland boss Stephen Kenny later revealed the striker had already been experiencing problems with his knee before the match, although the tackle by Guimaraes may have aggravated the issue.

    “I don’t think it was well reported as an injury in the game, in the challenge, that’s not the case actually,” Kenny told a press conference last week. "It is one that he’s been playing on, the patella tendon injury, a knee injury that he has had some pain in.

    "So, he just felt after he did it that it was too sore and he couldn’t play on it. When he came off he just felt too sore and it was too sore to participate. You have to respect that. It was obviously too sore and he was in too much pain."

    Patella tendon injuries have caused serious harm to some of the best strikers. Shearer, who had two ACL injuries during his career, was eventually forced to retire due to a patella tendon issue while Ronaldo Nazario was struck down by the same problem when he was at the peak of his career with Inter.

    Patella tendon problems tend to arise due to repetitive overload and usually start with only minor discomfort. Most worryingly, athletes who suffer the problem do not experience pain until after the damage has started. The condition is worsened by continuing to play. The good news is that the issue can be resolved without surgery, and 120 days' rest can usually cure the problem. However, that would mean Ferguson not even training until mid-January.

  7. Room for two strikers? Of course there is

    Room for two strikers? Of course there is

    Injury problems are not the only issue preventing Ferguson from moving to United in a next year or two. His rise, annoyingly for United, comes just after they paid £72m ($89m) to sign Rasmus Hojlund from Atalanta.

    Hojlund's start to life with the Red Devils has been held back by a back injury he was carrying when he signed, but he had an encouraging debut off the bench against Arsenal and is set to make his full bow in front of the Old Trafford crowd on Saturday. For now, the focus will be on making sure Hojlund settles in Manchester and adapts to Ten Hag's style of play, rather than signing another big-money striker.

    However, even if Hojlund does get off to a good start, United should still be pursuing Ferguson, either for 2024 or 2025. Anthony Martial, who somehow turned up for training at the wrong time on Thursday, is the only other centre-forward at the club and the Frenchman has an infamously bad injury record.

    If United truly want to compete for the Premier League title again, then they need more than just one top-quality striker. At the moment they just have Marcus Rashford and Hojlund. City have Haaland and Julian Alvarez plus an array of goalscoring midfielders such as Jeremy Doku, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne. Arsenal, meanwhile, have Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah as centre-forward options, backed-up by Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli out wide and Martin Odegaard centrally.

    United's treble winning team in 1999 had four exceptional forwards (Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham) while the last time they won the Champions League they had Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha up front.

    There is, then, definitely room for Ferguson in United's future, and if they have any ambition to return to their past glories, they need to go and get him before someone else inevitably does.