Football/Soccer

Gavin Whyte happy to team up with Mark Sykes for Oxford and Northern Ireland

Gavin Whyte celebrates his goal against Israel last September.
Picture Mark Marlow

THE new combination of 'Gavin and Sykesy' is on the menu partly due to 'Frankie and Benny's'.

Mark Sykes joined Gavin Whyte at Oxford United in January and has progressed to the Northern Ireland senior squad with his recent call-up for the European qualifiers in Estonia and Belarus.

The Glenavon star was set to move to Port Vale – until the intervention from Whyte, as the latter revealed:

"It's been great having 'Sykesy' alongside me at the club since January.We've been mates for a long time and I was delighted to see him get the move he deserved after doing so well for Glenavon.

"I was actually with people from the club in 'Frankie & Benny's' beside our stadium when Port Vale agreed a deal with Glenavon and I told the manager and chairman they should definitely try to sign him.

"I rang 'Sykesy' straight away and told him to hold off if he could. I'm buzzing for him because he has done really well since coming to the club."

Mark Sykes scoring for Northern Ireland in a Euro U21 qualifier - he has been called up to the senior squad.

Whyte burst onto the international scene last September, scoring with his first touch as a substitute in a home friendly against Israel, but although he has also scored some spectacular goals for Oxford, he admits that the move to full-time football has been even tougher than he anticipated.

He moved to Oxford last summer from Crusaders and recalls: "Making the step up was something I always knew it would be hard but it was so much harder than I expected at the start.

"At the end of the season I was so tired because it was my first season in full-time football but I think I have adapted pretty well.

"The one thing I really noticed is that my legs are not as strong as I thought when I left Crusaders but the manager worked hard to get me through it.

"It's only natural that training wasn't as intense at the Crues but it is something I have gotten used to now. I know I have a lot more strength now and I've taken to all aspects of making the step up really well, hopefully.

"Being in and out of hotels at the start obviously made it harder but that is something everyone has to go through and I know it has helped me learn a lot."

Having said that, he still caught the eye, before understandably fading as the season progressed – until a huge uplift at the end:

"To be honest, I probably started a lot of games sooner than I expected and I then had a spell of scoring four goals in seven games, which helped my confidence.

"The goals dried up a bit after that which was hard but I had another spell at the end of the season when I scored my first hat-trick for Oxford.

"Overall, I think I have really improved every aspect of my game but I know there is a long way to go.

"I can't for one second sit back and think I've made it but I'd like to think I contributed to a decent season for the club."

As for Northern Ireland, Whyte may get more game-time due to the injury-enforced absence of Niall McGinn, although manager Michael O'Neill may still save the 22-year-old for later in the two forthcoming matches:

"The games in Estonia and Belarus are going to be tough, we all know that. We beat them both at Windsor but they are going to be different types of games out there.

"But we're coming into these games with confidence after picking up six points from our first two games in the group.

"I know a lot of the fans will be thinking about massive matches with Germany and Holland and when the draw was made they were certainly games I was excited about. But our only focus right now is in the next two games and trying to take care of those.

"I've been able to learn a lot in a short space of time in the international squad. Having quality players like Steven Davis, Stuart Dallas and so many others, it would be crazy not to learn from what they do and how they apply themselves in every training session and games. I love being around these players".

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