If you’re good enough, you’re old enough is a common phrase in sporting parlance and Irish Premiership club Glenavon FC have taken it to heart by playing a goalkeeper in their first team at the age of 14.
Conner Byrne made his debut for the Lurgan team as they triumphed against derby rivals Portadown on Monday night to reach the Mid-Ulster Cup final.
The head of Glenavon’s academy, Ryan Prentice, said he was delighted the teenage shot-stopper had been picked by first team manager Gary Hamilton.
Prentice believes the youngster is more than capable of handling the physical demands of the modern game.
“I think it’s fantastic for Conner as a player to play in the first team and credit should be given to the manager for taking the chance on youth, as it doesn’t always happen at other clubs,” he said.
“He’s tall, brave and dedicated to training and works very hard with the coaches.
“The physical side has to be managed, but the flip-side is that the game is not as physical as it maybe was 20 or 30 years ago, when goalkeepers got clattered.
“He’s also marshalled by experienced players who will look after him.
“For example, the club’s first team coach Kris Lindsay, who has vast experience as an Irish league player, was playing in the game against Portadown – so he was keeping an eye out for him too.”
Youth has been at the heart of Glenavon’s progress under Hamilton recently, with Bobby Burns, 18, and Mark Sykes, 20, among the players making an impact in the first team.
However, Byrne’s selection is on another level in terms of age.
Prentice said the Glenavon boss had watched the boy’s development for a number of months, before taking the plunge.
“Our academy went through a big change about four and a half years ago, with a number of us coming into the academy to restructure it, that is no criticism of what went before,” he said.
“We had various trials and that’s when Conner arrived.
“Gary Hamilton has been aware of him for about a season and a half, he regularly watches our games and has been aware of his progress.
“Conner has been doing very well, he has played with the under-20 team before and has been training with the senior squad for a number of months. He has always played at a level ahead of his age.”
One of Northern Ireland’s most famous goalkeepers, Pat Jennings, was 18 when he began his football career in England with Watford, while Italian international Gianluigi Donnarumma is a current star between the sticks after making his debut for AC Milan at 16.
But Prentice says it is important not to get carried away about his prodigy’s prospects.
“You don’t want to speculate at this stage, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself,” he added.
“If he continues to work hard, it would be nice if he could make a living out of football.”