Belfast Telegraph

I want to play for Northern Ireland despite fatigue: Oxford's hat-trick hero Gavin Whyte lifts the lid on 'amazing' first season

Gavin Whyte was celebrating his first hat-trick in professional football on Monday.
Gavin Whyte was celebrating his first hat-trick in professional football on Monday.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Oxford United's newest hat-trick hero Gavin Whyte says he is ready and raring to go for Northern Ireland this summer.

The 23-year-old became the first player to score a treble for the U's in more than two years when he found the net three times against Shrewsbury on Monday.

It was just days after boss Karl Robinson had revealed that Whyte is suffering from 'chronic fatigue' during his first season in full-time football.

Robinson wants to discuss the issue with Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill ahead of the nation's Euro 2020 qualifying double-header in June.

The away trips to Estonia and Belarus follow a month after the end of the League One season and less than three weeks before pre-season training is due to begin back at United.

Whyte, perhaps expectedly, isn't keen to miss out on any international action but is understanding of his manager's concerns.

"I want to play for Northern Ireland any chance I can get," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"There is nothing I can do really. The gaffer is saying what he wants to say about it because of the state I'm in. He wants to look after me and make sure I'm right for next season.

"I haven't really spoken to anyone about it yet but maybe this week I can get a good chat and see where it's at."

It's not the first time Robinson has come under Northern Ireland supporters' spotlights, having raised eyebrows back in October when he said he was 'gutted' he would be without Whyte during the international break.

Robinson claimed that if Oxford hadn't signed Whyte, he wouldn't have become an international player. O'Neill then hit back at what he saw as 'belittling' comments.

Lifting the lid about his first season in League One, however, Whyte is full of praise for both his club and international bosses.

"I really, really like (Robinson)," he said. "For my first season in professional football, he's been brilliant with me. He respects that I've just moved up from playing part-time and have done as well as I have. We've had lots of chats and he just wants to do everything to help me to progress, the same as Michael O'Neill.

"Having two managers like that is a massive help to me."

So what of this 'chronic fatigue'? The Oxford physios are putting it down to a sharp increase in the amount of football Whyte is playing and the constant stress being placed on his body. He has already featured in an eye-watering 49 games for club and country this season and 'wasn't meant to be playing' on Monday afternoon.

A grade two tear in his quad after the recent international break set him back and, after playing 90 minutes against Wimbledon the previous weekend, he was left out of the squad that beat Charlton on Saturday.

"I woke up the morning after the Wimbledon game in the worst pain I've felt all season," he explained. "My hamstrings are tight and my gluts as well.

"I obviously don't want to be feeling like this but the physios say that over the close-season, it's a case of strengthening my hamstrings and my quads and making sure that this doesn't happen again next season.

"I feel ok today (the morning after his hat-trick heroics) but then it's really two days after that it hits so I'll maybe feel it more tomorrow. "

All that still couldn't stop him netting three to haul his Oxford side to a 3-2 win at Shrewsbury, much to the delight of the travelling support.

Whyte had managed hat-tricks for Crusaders against both Carrick Rangers and Glenavon, but his first one in professional football, he says, is 'special', the match ball stowed away and ready to present it to his mum who, he assures me, will frame it.

"To go out and get a hat-trick was unbelievable," he said.

"My first goal was actually my favourite as I hooked the ball over the keeper but scoring the other goals in front of the away end was incredible."

He's hoping manager Robinson will give him the nod to play in the club's final home game of the season against Doncaster this weekend, even if it means missing out on the away game at Luton that draws a line under his first full-time campaign.

Sitting behind him in central midfield will, no doubt, be former Glenavon star Mark Sykes.

He has now started eight League One games since his January switch. If Whyte has taken to full-time football with apparent ease, even he concedes Sykes has surpassed all expectations.

"Hopefully a senior international call-up is not too far away for Mark now," said Whyte.

"When I was on the phone to him talking about him signing, I was warning him that he would have to bide his time and wouldn't come in and play every week straight away.

"Central-midfield is more difficult than on the wing to make that step up but he's loving every minute of it. He plays with no fear. He looks like he's playing in the park with his mates. He plays with confidence and he offers something that our other central-midfielders don't so that's why he's starting."

It's fairly safe to say, even at this early stage, that both Irish League graduates have made a good choice in terms of their first full-time club.

"It was all about picking the right move and I think I've done that," agreed Sykes. "I wanted to go somewhere that I was going to get games and then maybe eventually have a chance of moving up. Right now though I'm fully focused on doing well for Oxford - I'm loving it here.

"This season has been amazing. I've played far more games than I expected to at a tough level. I think I'm a better player now than I was last year as well. I've adjusted to full-time training and I'm stronger and quicker now. It's been a great year and I'm looking forward to a break now."

He has plenty to be excited about once the season ends on May 4 - maybe except that strengthening work in the gym. That's because he'll be straight onto the plane home to see three-year-old daughter Lily.

"I'm buzzing to see her," he said. "I've been looking forward to it for months so I can't wait now.

"I try and get over as often as I can to see her. She was over here with me for a month so when she left, it was hard to get used to not seeing her wake up every day and then when I get back in from training, it's so quiet."

As chance would have it, he'll also be arriving back in Belfast the day after his old club Crusaders face Ballinamallard in the Irish Cup final.

"The Ballinamallard captain Richard Clarke actually text me yesterday after my hat-trick," he said. "I was buzzing for him getting to the cup final. He's one of the best players I played with at Crusaders, no doubt. I would like the Crues to win but I'd love Richard to have a great game."

The end-of-season break isn't far away for Gavin. The only question is whether it's going to be interrupted by an international trip.

It's all part of the management of another of the recent Irish League graduates making their way in the world of professional football.

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