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Whyte and Sykes savouring every opportunity at Oxford

NI duo open up on switch from Irish League to full-time game

Kicking on: Gavin Whyte in battle for Oxford
Kicking on: Gavin Whyte in battle for Oxford
Mark Sykes wins a header against Whyte while at Glenavon and Crusaders respectively
Gavin Whyte at school
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It's a city that's better known for its scholars than its football stars and which has more associations with Morse than Messi but it doesn't take a great detective to figure out that two of Belfast's most promising footballers Gavin Whyte and Mark Sykes are learning fast about the full-time game - and themselves - in Oxford.

They may not be playing at Old Trafford or the Emirates but the two youngsters who graduated from the Irish League with honours look singularly at home in the cosier surroundings of the Kassam Stadium, Oxford United's 12,500 capacity home.

And it's safe to say the two distant relatives from Belfast have taken to Oxford like the city's University boat crew to water.

Not far away, the world's top stars are making millions as they strut their not inconsiderable stuff in the Premier League in front of upwards of 60,000 fans every week but for Oxford United players the rewards aren't quite in the same ball park.

Gavin and Mark, however, say they're happy with their lot even though they're not in the super-rich category of the Pogbas and Ozils and even though Oxford have been in the headlines of late after they were late paying the wages of backroom staff.

The club, who are owned by wealthy Thai businessman Sumrith Thanakarnjansuth, said the transfer of funds from Asia had been held up by compliance checks but the players did get their salaries on time.

A financial heachache looks set to linger after the club was served a winding-up petition by their stadium owners, Firoka, over a late rent payment.

But United boss Karl Robinson praised his squad for the calm way they dealt with the furore and last Saturday they rewarded him with a victory that money couldn't buy in a relegation battle.

Oxford dug out a vital 2-1 win over their near neighbours Wycombe thanks to a stunning 94th-minute goal from Josh Ruffels. They face Walsall today.

Sykes, who joined the Yellows from the Blues of Glenavon in January, had just come on as a substitute but it would be stretching things to say his introduction sparked the late win.

"I only had a couple of touches of the ball," he admitted to me afterwards in a pitchside interview. "But I was glad to get on at all, it was a great win which was thoroughly deserved."

Mark's family from Belfast, who were sitting in the South Stand, had feared they wouldn't see the hugely skilful midfielder in action. Mark Sykes senior said: "It looked as if he wasn't going to be brought off the bench. We want to see him getting the chance to show the club what he can do."

Gavin Whyte, who's been at Oxford United since July last year, was a reluctant spectator.

He's been sidelined due to a quad injury which ruled him out of Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus at Windsor Park.

The 23-year-old said: "It was really sore when I was on international duty but it's not as serious as I first feared. I got a scan and it came back a grade two tear. I'm hoping to be playing for Oxford again very soon.

"Missing out at Windsor Park was a big blow. I'd been expecting to play some minutes in the two games. I have four caps already and was keen to make it six. But the two wins were brilliant, the perfect start to the campaign."

Mark and Gavin live just five minutes apart in a village 10 miles from Oxford, which is the way it was back in Belfast where Gavin from the Markets lived five minutes away from Mark's home in the lower Ormeau.

And the two are related, though it's a long-distance link as Mark's father explains.

"I'm a full cousin of Gavin's uncle, who is my mother's brother," he said.

Mark junior said: "Gavin and I have known each other for ages. But I played my football for Rosario and Gavin was with the Doyle club in the Short Strand.

"Then, of course, he went to Crusaders and I joined Glenavon and we played against each other quite a few times."

The first time Mark and Gavin turned out in the same side was with the Northern Ireland U21s.

Gavin, who won two Player of the Year awards in successive seasons in the Irish League and who famously scored after 108 seconds of his senior international debut in a 3-0 win over Israel, has put his all-too-well publicised negative publicity from a recent trip back home behind him.

His manager Robinson, a former Liverpool favourite, is a fan of his 23-year-old recruit.

In interviews after last Saturday's win, he said the team were missing Gavin who has made quicker progress at United than anyone at the Kassam - the name comes from a previous owner - imagined possible.

Gavin said: "I think Oxford United are perfect for me. I have loved every minute here. I always wanted a move across the water and I knew that Jim Magilton had been here and he enjoyed his time at Oxford."

Gavin found the initial transition from part-time football in the Irish League to the full-time game tough.

"Training every day was hard," he said. "I was homesick at the start too and staying in a hotel was the worst bit. It took me a few months but I think I have adapted well. And all the lads have made me feel welcome."

Gavin was delighted to see Mark getting his big break into cross-channel football. And he revealed that he played a part in the move, recommending the talented Mourneview Park man to his boss.

He said: "I knew the gaffer was interested in Mark and I told him he needed to get him before someone else did because he's such a good player."

Mark was just about to sign for Port Vale when the call from Oxford came. Port Vale's since departed manager Neil Aspin had flown to Belfast to offer a contract. "I was all for it," said Mark, who's 22. "I said I was going to go but on the Sunday morning Gavin rang me to tell me Oxford were about to make a bid for me."

Gavin said: "I chatted to Mark for about an hour and let him know that Oxford were a fantastic club and I think I helped make up his mind."

Mark says the fact that Gavin had done so well at Oxford influenced Robinson to put his faith in another Irish League player and the transfer deal was done in the space of a couple of hours.

Mark has no regrets about his switch to League One. "I settled in well. I lived with Gavin for about three weeks. He was doing all the cooking and the washing. But then I found my own place and I'm pleased with it.

"I adapted quickly to the physical side of things because I was used to the Irish League but you can tell there is a bit more quality over here when people get the ball. That's what I have to learn and what I have to improve.

"I thought we would have been having double sessions every day but it's not like that."

Filling the rest of players' days away from the training ground has the potential to present more challenges but Mark said: "I've had my family over and my girlfriend has been here too. So that's been helpful because you could get quite lonely.

"And it's not as if you can go to the gym because you've done your training for the day. You just have to get used to having a lot of time on your hands."

Gavin's old team-mates at Crusaders booked their place in the Irish Cup Final with a win over Coleraine just after Oxford had put Wycombe to the sword.

Gavin was confident they would emerge victorious. He said: "I was talking to Declan Caddell and Sean O'Neill before the game and they were buzzing. I'm convinced they will go all the way and win the Cup for the first time since 2009."

Mark keeps in touch with his old Glenavon colleagues too and says that his former boss Gary Hamilton is planning a trip to England to see him.

Mark, a former Young Player of the Year in the Irish League, would clearly like to be more in the thick of things more often for Oxford but he's biding his time.

He said: "After arriving here in January I played the first four matches in a row, and I loved it. But even though I haven't been playing in too many of the recent games, I am glad that the lads are getting the results we need to stay up.

"I might have been more frustrated with only being a sub if we were in mid-season but survival in League One is the important thing and we are going the right way about it."

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