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23rd Jan 2018

Michael Obafemi emergence would be exciting for Ireland, but England and Nigeria may come calling

Matthew Gault

As Ireland fans we don’t have a lot to get excited about at the moment, so the emergence of a promising young player is worth talking about.

Michael Obafemi establishes himself as a first-teamer at Southampton and becomes a major presence in the Republic of Ireland set-up, adding a bit of youthful exuberance and excitement up top in the years ahead.

That’s the ideal scenario. But, unfortunately, it might not be so simple. The 17-year-old made his debut for the Southampton senior side on Sunday, coming on as a late replacement for Manolo Gabbiadini during the 1-1 draw with Tottenham.

He may have spurned a chance to win the game for the Saints – miscuing his effort after being found by Dusan Tadic – but the Dublin-born striker has still been tipped for a big future by his club manager Mauricio Pellegrino.

“I think he’s a really fast player,” Pellegrino said. “I think the spirit is the most important quality but also he’s a good finisher and I observed that their back four was really high and he will have some chances.

“He was there really close but it’s the beginning of his career, still he has to grow a lot but to us, that we have had a good history with our home-grown players, Michael is one more.”

With electric pace, Obafemi is a player who has the ability to run in behind defences and offer dynamism in the final third. He also happens to be a good finisher, despite what the miss against Spurs may have told you about him. In December, Obafemi scored a brilliant hat-trick for the Southampton U18s against Wolves in the FA Youth Cup, displaying a potent combination of pace and power to outmuscle and outrun defenders for two of the goals.

He would offer Ireland a few exciting ingredients that have been sadly absent in attack recently: industry, pace and a killer instinct in front of goal. Indeed, Martin O’Neill hinted that he will use the friendly against Turkey to blood some youngsters and, although Obafemi is clearly still in the early stages of his development, it would be refreshing to see O’Neill give him the chance to at least train with the senior squad.

Of course, hypothetically speaking, if Obafemi goes some way to fulfilling his promise, it will attract Nigeria. He was born in Ireland to Nigerian parents before moving to England at a young age. Having impressed at both the Leyton Orient and Southampton academies, he was snapped up by Ireland, going on to make two appearances for the U19s.

However, while he would be expected to be in the squad for the U19s next match, against Portugal in March, there is a possibility that his progression at Southampton would pave the way for a call-up to the U21s, who face Azerbaijan in a European Championship qualifier on March 27.

But England may try to claim him. Considering that has spent much of his life there, Obafemi may qualify for a passport through residency rules and, should that come to pass, the FA will doubtless come into the picture if Obafemi’s stock rises. The prospect of an approach from Nigeria also looms large.

With the Golden Eagles having secured a place in the World Cup, should they dangle the possibility of a ticket to Russia in front of Obafemi, it would be understandably difficult to turn down. Nigeria’s next match is a friendly against Poland on March 23, the same day Ireland play Turkey. If Obafemi shines in the eight weeks between now and then, he may have a difficult choice to make regarding his allegiance.

Limerick striker Chiedozie Ogbene recently found himself in a similar situation, being eligible for either Ireland or Nigeria, and has indicated that he would declare for the latter should an international call-up come his way. We can only hope that Ireland cling on to Obafemi. At this point, with Daryl Murphy turning 35 before Ireland play Turkey and Shane Long suffering a worryingly extended barren spell in front of goal, we need all the help we can get.

The last thing we need is a tug-of-war involving one of the more exciting Irish fledglings to emerge in recent years.

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