Saturday 24 March 2018

England join race to win over Irish teen sensation Michael Obafemi

Michael Obafemi made his Premier League debut at 17 for Southampton
Michael Obafemi made his Premier League debut at 17 for Southampton
Southampton's Michael Obafemi. Photo: Reuters

John Fallon

Getting excited by Irish-qualified teens making a Premier League breakthrough tends to carry a health warning and the caveat applies too in the case of Michael Obafemi.

First of all the good news. The 17-year-old who made a late, and almost match-winning, introduction for Southampton against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was born in Dublin and has represented Ireland.

Up the flip side, Obafemi has dipped his toe in the English set-up by participating in a couple of training camps and he's a genuine target for Nigeria, the birth country of his parents.

As we've learned with Jack Grealish, the more inroads a duel-eligible player makes at the top table, then the prospects of being lured away by England snowballs.

Declan Rice's ascent for West Ham United this season means the English FA, including Gareth Southgate, intend testing the loyalty of the Londoner to Ireland by tabling an invitation when they deem opportune. While Obafemi doesn't feature in the top tier of targets, his name and potential is well known at St George's Park.

Whether, in fact, the second youngest ever Saints debutant is even eligible for the Auld Enemy is unknown. The lack of bloodline would suggest that's a no - yet avenues exist through residency rules to obtain a passport.

Listening to the praise bestowed on Obafemi by Mauricio Pellegrino might convince the English FA to intensify their pursuit.

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"Michael is a really fast player and that speed is his most important quality," the soft-spoken Argentinian noted. "I observed that Tottenham's back four was really high up the pitch and Michael could have some chances. He came really close to getting on the end of one but this is still the beginning of his career."

Shane Long's illness created the gap for his compatriot to fill on the Saints bench and he's expected to keep the spot for Saturday's visit of Watford. Irrespective of him being afforded the opportunity of building upon his debut by Pellegrino, Obafemi's international intentions should soon become clearer.

Tom Mohan's Ireland U-19 squad, whom he figured twice for in September's UEFA qualifiers, have a couple of friendlies next month as preparation for their elite phase series in Portugal from 21 March.

That week in March is hectic for Irish squads, with the U-21s and seniors also in action, but Nigeria also have a friendly in Poland. Their focus is on widening their options for the World Cup in Russia, meaning any gems with top-flight experience in England are fair game in their eyes.

The recent example of Chris Coleman throwing rookie Ethan Ampadu in for his senior Welsh bow proves strange events can unfurl amid the flying skin and hair surrounding an international tug-of-war.

Irish Independent

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