John Fallon: 'Martin O'Neill is to blame for facilitating culture of choice'
Tomorrow night’s friendly against Northern Ireland provides an audition to shine but, in the case of Michael Obafemi, who is trying to impress who?
Never before has an Irish-born player, sculpted through the ranks of the underage international teams, shown a reluctance to commit himself permanently to the country of his birth.
Martin O’Neill’s comments on Monday have, at least, raised a suspicion about Obafemi’s intentions, yet should also attract scrutiny of the manager’s due diligence.
O’Neill’s assertion that no obstacle blocked the Southampton striker from making his debut tomorrow but his eligibility conundrum could stop him figuring in Denmark next Monday was farcical.
“I will have a discussion with Michael and his family,” O’Neill said about the player who can also declare for Nigeria or England, only if he dodges a competitive senior cap in Aarhus.
“He has decisions to make and I understand it.”
Unless O’Neill reports a positive outcome to those talks or Obafemi himself pledges his allegiance, then Ireland have an uncommitted player in the squad. In other words, another Declan Rice without concealing the fact he is mulling over his options.
Perhaps Obafemi is to be applauded for his honesty. The furore which has accompanied Rice’s self-imposed exile is centrally to do with him constantly rubbishing talk of being tempted to play for England.
“It wouldn’t matter if I got a call from them because I’m fully focussed on Ireland,” asserted the West Ham player just eight months ago. His position remained intact after the third and last of his senior caps against USA in June.
Now, it seems Obafemi is following suit, which should be a case of once bitten, twice shy for O’Neill.
Only last week there was no hint of equivocation from the teenage striker. “I wasn’t concerned about Obafemi because I think his desire is to represent us,” insisted O’Neill.
How this stance, since revised, was elicited is unclear but, given the ongoing Rice case, it wouldn’t have been asking much for O’Neill to arrange a sit-down to ascertain Obafemi’s intentions.
Adding to the whiff of desperation about all this is the Ireland manager’s admission that the player’s dual-eligibility contributed to the surprise call-up.
And, whatever about the morals of such a tactic, he looked vindicated until the bombshell was dropped after the first training session on Monday. Quite simply, if there was any uncertainty surrounding Obafemi’s “desire to play for us”, he should have been left at home until his mind was confusion waned.
It’s not as if there aren’t other young talented strikers, principally Troy Parrott, worthy of inclusion as a bolter when the well of firepower is drying up.
Now, we face a situation whereby Dublin-born Obafemi could show an Irish crowd his potential at Lansdowne Road, amounting to no more than a teaser were he to opt out of the trip to Denmark. It feeds into the notion that international football has lost its soul and is resembling a transfer market with each passing year.
O’Neill felt sufficiently spooked by Northern Ireland’s offer to Jimmy Dunne that he made a phone call, immediately naming him in an expanded squad for these pair of games.
It all gained a sinister streak on Monday when Dunne was excluded from the final squad, seemingly with his prior knowledge, and an U19 international in Lee O’Connor was abseiled in for “training purposes”.
Even if Dunne, a first-team player in the SPL, didn’t get a minute on the pitch over the double-header, he’d have accepted being at least part of the squad. The Obafemi case, especially O’Neill’s handling of it, remains the most disconcerting.
Arguably, it’s worse than Harry Arter being accused by O’Neill of picking and choosing his games over going on strike in September following a rant by Ireland assistant Roy Keane.
Obafemi is using the system to pick and choose his country and the manager is facilitating it.