Belfast Telegraph

Why big clubs taking notice of Lurgan Blues' young diamonds is not a surprise

By Graham Luney

Young dreams are coming true at Mourneview Park this season as cross-channel scouts cast admiring glances at two players with glittering futures in the game.

Northern Ireland Under-21 international Mark Sykes is one of those prodigious young talents who are too good to stay in the Irish League.

His stunning form this season has attracted interest from clubs in Scotland and England - including Leicester City - and a move appears likely either next month or in the summer.

But the 20-year-old, who has developed a real eye for goal, isn't the only Glenavon diamond beginning to sparkle.

Incredibly, goalkeeper Conner Byrne made his debut for the club aged just 14 years and 245 days in last month's 2-1 Mid Ulster Cup win over Portadown.

The Lismore Comprehensive student became one of the youngest players in Irish League history and, with top clubs monitoring his progress, the teenager could also get a chance to develop his talent across the water.

Still only 14-years old, it would be wrong to place too much pressure or expectation on the youngster, but those who know him admire a level-headed boy with a strong work ethic.

Sykes and Byrne may be at different stages in their careers but their list of admirers is growing, and that's no surprise to Lurgan Blues player-coach Kris Lindsay.

"Mark has been absolute quality this season, outstanding," said the former Linfield ace.

"He broke into the team and played quite a few games last season which helped him take his game forward.

"He has worked really hard and in pre-season he was in the best shape I've seen him in.

"He has taken everything on board we have said to him and he's added goals to his game which was the one thing that was missing.

"For someone so young he has progressed so much and there's been a lot of interest in him.

"It would be a massive blow to Glenavon if we lost him but, at the same time, you want players to further their career as much as they can and Mark has the attributes to play in England. It's just whether a club takes a chance on him.

"I've no idea if a move will happen, but Mark will continue to play as well as he can and develop his game with us.

"Conner has been training with us quite a bit and got his chance in the Mid-Ulster Cup.

"To be fair to him he acquitted himself very well, he came and took crosses, his communication and distribution were good and that's all we can ask for.

"He seems to have a bright future ahead of him but he's a level-headed local lad who wants to work hard and develop.

"There's great potential there and it's a great achievement to play for Glenavon, it's a tribute to his attitude and work rate.

"He's coped well with the attention and he's a big lad, you wouldn't think he's 14 but he's showing a maturity beyond his years.

"He played for us in the Mid-Ulster Cup against Portadown and the next day played for the Northern Ireland Under-16s against Poland and acquitted himself well.

"He's got a big future in the game if he keeps working hard."

Darren Murphy, elite performance coach at the Irish FA, manages the Northern Ireland Under-16 side, and he's seen Byrne's talent up close.

"Conner has played a few games for me, including the one against Poland just after he made his Glenavon debut," said the former Dungannon Swifts boss.

"I think it's important to remember that he's just a 14-year old kid and his name has just been highlighted because he has played for his club at a young age.

"He's got the talent and work ethic to succeed but, like the other young boys, he has so much more learning and development to do. He is lucky to have a manager in Gary Hamilton who has an excellent track record in nurturing young players like Mark Sykes, James Singleton and Rhys Marshall.

"Conner can tap into the knowledge and experience of Jonny Tuffey, a former Northern Ireland international, and coach Reggie Hillen.

"You couldn't ask for better support or guidance.

"He's a good kid, hungry to learn and develop, but you can never get ahead of yourself in this game.

"Unfortunately we have seen many young players show huge promise and then they are lost to the game, you never like to see that but it does happen for various reasons.

"Conner was at the Leeds United Academy with our Under-16 captain Dylan Boyle and he's another young player who has had an excellent year.

"The Under-16s have had 14 internationals this year and he has played in them all.

"He's at Ridgeway Rovers and is a talented young lad with a good attitude. Matthew Tipton and Jamie Mulgrew have helped him develop.

"But Conner will be looked after at Glenavon and it's important for all the boys that they stay level-headed, have a good work ethic and attitude.

"If the chance comes to play at a higher level, that right attitude and willingness to learn will see them progress."

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