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Mark Sykes could be Championship star if Oxford win at Wembley, says Jonny Tuffey

 

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Proven talent: Mark Sykes has enjoyed a fine first season with Oxford United

Proven talent: Mark Sykes has enjoyed a fine first season with Oxford United

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Wing wizard: Paul Smyth is hoping to get the nod for Wycombe

Wing wizard: Paul Smyth is hoping to get the nod for Wycombe

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Glenavon stopper Tuffey is thrilled for both men

Glenavon stopper Tuffey is thrilled for both men

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Proven talent: Mark Sykes has enjoyed a fine first season with Oxford United

Former Northern Ireland international Jonny Tuffey says his ex-Glenavon team-mate Mark Sykes deserves to grace the Wembley surface tonight.

The 22-year-old midfield magician is hoping his Oxford United side can conquer Wycombe Wanderers, who have former Linfield favourite Paul Smyth in their ranks, in the League One play-off final (kick-off 7.30pm).

A cherished place in the Championship awaits the winners and, even though fans won't be able to create the famous Wembley atmosphere at the 90,000-seater national stadium, it will still be a special chapter in the careers of the Northern Ireland duo.

Sykes started as Oxford edged past Portsmouth on penalties in their semi-final while Smyth, on loan from Queens Park Rangers, was again an unused substitute, watching Wycombe complete a 6-3 aggregate win over Fleetwood Town.

Former Lurgan Blues ace Sykes returned to Oxford's starting line-up, having been left on the bench in favour of Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn for Friday's first leg, and played a significant role on the right-wing as his side once again held Pompey to a 1-1 draw.

In the resulting shoot-out, a miss from former Northern Ireland U21 international Cameron McGeehan allowed ex-Liverpool Academy prospect Cameron Brannagan to net the winning spot-kick.

Glenavon stopper Tuffey is thrilled for both men and believes a Wembley fairytale is a fitting reward for their attitude and mentality.

"I've seen Sykesy play for Oxford and I'm absolutely delighted for him", said the former Partick Thistle keeper.

"He has gone over there and seems to be flying.

"He's making the most of his ability and thankfully it's working out for the kid.

"In a few months time, he could be a Championship player and he fully deserves it, it's great to see but either him or Paul will be disappointed on the day.

"They've both done incredibly well and are making great careers for themselves.

"I left Linfield before Paul came on the scene but I've played against him enough times to know what a talent he is.

"When I was part of the Under-21 staff, I worked with him closely and they are both terrific talents with all the ability in the world.

"They seem to have the right mentality and attitude and are making a name for themselves in the game.

"Long may it continue. Wembley is a special stadium to play in and being a play-off final makes it more memorable.

"If they had 40,000 fans there, it would be even better but it's still a massive occasion and one of them will be celebrating promotion."

For former Linfield keeper Tuffey, the duo's progress is another example of how the Irish League is creating a pathway to the full-time game.

Another former Glenavon ace, Northern Ireland international Bobby Burns, moved to Hearts in 2018 before going on loan to Livingston and then Australian side Newcastle Jets.

"Guys moving across the water builds the credibility of the Irish League and, although you need a little luck on your side, you also need to have the right attitude and mentality," added Tuffey.

"To progress in your career, ability alone is not enough, you must have the full package.

"Stuart Dallas is flying with Leeds and we've seen Gavin Whyte progress to Cardiff City after getting his move across the water from Crusaders.

"The Irish League now has a reputation of nurturing talent and it's great to see."

Belfast Telegraph