Gavin Whyte takes Irish Premiership path to Northern Ireland debut goal joy

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Debut goal was a dream come true - Whyte

He was virtually unheard of outside the Irish League before his summer move to Oxford United - but the cat is well and truly out of the bag after his Northern Ireland debut heroics.

Gavin Whyte announced himself on the big stage in style when he scored with his first touch in international football just 106 seconds after coming on as substitute in Northern Ireland's 3-0 friendly win over Israel.

A warm glow engulfed Windsor Park as the home crowd acclaimed a young player, who learnt his trade as a part-timer in the Irish Premiership, making the transition to international football look seamless.

Having played a leading role as Crusaders won three of the last four Irish Premiership titles, the 22-year-old always seemed destined to join an English or Scottish club.

League One side Oxford made their move in July and Whyte has hit three goals in six games so far.

Rise to prominence takes a 'crazy' turn

"To score on my debut with my first touch was a dream come true and a moment I'll never forget," Whyte reflected after the game.

"Just getting on the pitch for Northern Ireland is what I always wanted to do and now I'm hungry for more caps.

"The last few months have been crazy. It's all happened so quickly but I always knew I was going to be a professional footballer and I want to take the opportunity with both hands."

Whyte enjoyed huge success in the Irish League before his move to Oxford
Whyte enjoyed huge success in the Irish League before his move to Oxford

Having made his debut for Irish Premiership champions Crusaders as an 18-year-old at the end of the 2013-14 season, the Belfast man went on to score 43 goals in 132 appearances during what has been the most successful period in the club's history.

He went to Oxford in the summer with the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards packed in the suitcase along with his three league winners' medals.

'His ability was never in doubt'

Having previously attracted interest from clubs such as Everton and Celtic, it will come as no surprise that Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has long been aware of Whyte's potential.

O'Neill included the seven-times-capped Under-21 international in his squad for the summer tour of Central America, but didn't play him against either Panama or Costa Rica.

The former Newcastle United midfielder said he could see a big difference in Whyte's physique after drafting him into the senior squad from the Under-21s for the Nations League opener against Bosnia-Herzegovina and friendly against Israel.

"I was delighted with Gavin getting his goal," said O'Neill.

"He has made great strides in the short time that he has been at Oxford and he has made a big impact in our squad in training.

"Gavin's ability has never been in question, it was more his physicality - but he is stronger and quicker now."

Clubs tapping into Irish League market

Whyte is not the only Irish League player to rise to prominence recently, with the emergence of a crop of talented youngsters one of the biggest talking points of the Northern Irish club game.

Midfielder Brad Lyons, 21, this month signed for English Championship club Blackburn Rovers, while 18-year-old utility player Bobby Burns joined Hearts from Glenavon in the summer, before going on loan to Premiership rivals Livingston.

Burns' former Lurgan Blues team-mate Mark Sykes, meanwhile, further enhanced his reputation with a commanding midfield display in Northern Ireland Under-21s' victory away to Spain on Tuesday night.

Burns has scored eight goals in 46 appearances for Glenavon
Bobby Burns scored eight goals in 46 appearances for Glenavon before moving to Hearts

This comes a year after Paul Smyth earned a move from Linfield to Queens Park Rangers.

While current Northern Ireland internationals such as Gareth McAuley, Stuart Dallas and Liam Boyce all started their careers in the Irish League, it's rare for so many young players to make the transition at the same time.

When you consider Oran Kearney has just been appointed as St Mirren manager following the fantastic job he did as boss of Coleraine, the rude health of the Irish League appears evident.

More than a rising tide lifting all boats

So, why have this crop of exciting young players emerged at the same time?

There is no doubt that the feel-good factor from Northern Ireland's qualification for, and performance at, the 2016 Euros - their first major tournament in 30 years - is a factor.

However, the direct influence of O'Neill, who played for both Glentoran and Coleraine during his career, cannot be underestimated.

He criticised the standard that players were performing at two years ago, but is known to have played a key role in Kearney getting the Buddies job, and is keen to promote local talent into the international squad when they merit a place.

"We've been patient with the young players and we've done a lot of work to try and make people aware of them as well," O'Neill explained.

"Glenavon's Mark Sykes, for example, played extremely well against Spain.

"We've worked hard with the domestic game and we want to see the young players coming in and representing us in the Under-21s.

"If they do so I genuinely believe they can kick on and they can develop the way Liam Boyce, Gavin Whyte and Stuart Dallas have all developed."

'Will' Whyte be eyeing up Man City?

Developing, and developing quickly, is certainly something Gavin Whyte is doing.

He won't be getting ahead of himself, but Oxford are at home to Man City in the League Cup in a few weeks.

Whyte's international team-mate, Will Grigg, scored the goal that put City out of the FA Cup last season.

A Whyte goal with his first touch, anyone?