Tuesday 11 December 2018

FAI face competition from Nigeria for underage Ireland star after Premier League debut at just 17

4 October 2017; Michael Obafemi of Republic of Ireland during the UEFA European U19 Championship Qualifier match between Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan at Regional Sports Centre in Waterford. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
4 October 2017; Michael Obafemi of Republic of Ireland during the UEFA European U19 Championship Qualifier match between Republic of Ireland and Azerbaijan at Regional Sports Centre in Waterford. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

John Fallon

THE FAI are facing competition from Nigeria for the international allegiances of Michael Obafemi, who made his Premier League debut for Southampton yesterday.

Still only 17, the striker’s exploits in the Saints youth team earned him a place on the bench against Tottenham and he almost scored the winner during the 10 minutes he got on the pitch.

With the game deadlocked at 1-1, Mauricio Pellegrino threw the rookie on and he came within inches of turning a cross home but for once his prolific finishing touch deserted him.

Obafemi was born in Ireland to Nigerian parents before relocating to England at a young age. He spent his formative years at Leyton Orient before being snapped up by the Saints.

Having been spotted by the FAI’s London-based scout Mark O’Toole, he declared for Ireland last year and was called into the U-18 squad for the Slovakia Cup. His debut, though, didn’t come until September when he played twice for the Under-19s in their first phase UEFA qualifiers in Waterford.

The next phase of the qualifiers take place in Portugal during March but, should his ascent continue, Obafemi may be fast-tracked into the U-21 squad for their Euro qualifier against Azerbaijan in the same week or even the senior training camp in Turkey.

Nigeria will have other ideas. In contrast to Ireland, they have qualified for the World Cup and will be eager to pitch themselves to a Premier League newcomer.

Another player eligible for both nations, Limerick’s in-demand striker Chiedozie Ogbene, has indicated he will declare for the Golden Eagles.

"It’s a special feeling as I have dreamed of this since I was a kid," said Obafemi following yesterday’s bow, which made him the second youngest player after Luke Shaw to make his top-flight debut for the Saints.

"I’m just thankful to the club and all the staff that made it happen.

"I came into training on Saturday believing I would be playing for the under-18s. The manager stopped me and said that I would be training instead and would maybe be in the first-team squad.

"When the chance came, I should have used my left foot but I hope I will get another opportunity to prove I can make it at this level.

"I was nervous but the welcome from the supporters was brilliant and the senior guys told me to just relax and prove myself. I want to move on from here and keep working hard.

"I can’t stop here, this is just the beginning."

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