Speedster does his best work in the box and Stephen Kenny may see him as No 9 in his system
Michael Obafemi’s Irish career looked to be on the way towards becoming a deceptive quiz question.
The tricky trivia poser would have been to ask the identity of the first player born in the 21st century to win a senior cap for Ireland.
Throwing that question out to the floor last year would likely have brought Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott or even Gavin Bazunu to mind with the first-named pair capped under Mick McCarthy. But they were beaten to the start line by a player of Nigerian heritage born in Dublin in 2000 who moved to England as a child.
Obafemi looked to be drifting out of the international picture to the point where it was forgotten that he actually came off the bench in Denmark in November 2018 in what proved to be Martin O’Neill’s final match in the hot seat.
Indeed, while Stephen Kenny spoke in very positive terms about Obafemi in Yerevan yesterday, he effectively bracketed him with uncapped players in the course of an answer.
Obafemi’s debut was big news that week before it was overtaken by events. O’Neill appeared keen to get him into the mix, repeatedly denying that he was just throwing the Southampton prospect into a competitive fixture earlier than he would have liked in order to avoid a Jack Grealish or Declan Rice-style defection.
Comments from Obafemi’s representatives had muddied the waters but a social media post of the player in a green jersey with the caption ‘All in’ was celebrated as a victory.
Over three-and-a-half years later, Obafemi is still waiting to win a second cap and his absence dropped off the news agenda for a considerable chunk of that period. Indeed, another tweet which looked to be a dig at Kenny’s decision to leave him out of his first senior squad cast doubt over where he stood from an Irish perspective.
As Ireland U-21 manager, Kenny preferred Connolly, Parrott and Adam Idah when all his front players were available. Obafemi was absent more often than he was present. Hamstring problems hindered his progress.
When Kenny moved onto the senior set-up, there was a feeling in the U-21 camp that Obafemi was lukewarm on representing his country in that sphere, believing he should be in the big boy dressing-room with generational peers.
But it’s fair to say there were doubts about his prospects of progression.
The case for Obafemi was that in his short career, he had still managed to score meaningful Premier League goals against Chelsea, West Ham and Manchester United. But he played just 57 minutes of football in the 2020/’21 campaign, with Ralph Hassenhuttl openly questioning if Obafemi was helping himself off the park. His comments moreso invited people to read between the lines..
“Without workload as a striker, you have no chance to play, especially in our team,” he said. “This is something he has to learn, especially when he gets the chances to play two games a week.
“It’s always a problem that we have to pay attention to his physicality as he’s had injuries in the past and we really have to take care of him. But that doesn’t mean in the second game that he can rest on the pitch.”
Southampton decided to let the player leave permanently and when his new boss at Swansea, Russell Martin, started to make similar noises last autumn then the alarm bells were ringing.
“Michael understands why he’s not in the squad, he agrees that he shouldn’t be in the squad, it’s nothing major,” Martin said in an interview that Swansea were happy to pump out on their social channels. “It’s such a strong group culturally. We spend a lot of time talking and he understands he needs to be better in a few aspects to become the player he wants to become and to become the person he wants to become.
“We have to really try and help him to get there. Too often in football, you’re expected to sign someone, a young man on a good contract, then just play football, it’s not the case.
“He’s done nothing major but there’s stuff we need to help him with. Performance doesn’t come before culture, it’s the other way around. You’ve got guys training so hard and you have to behave every day like what you are, a professional footballer.”
After Christmas, the signs were that the penny was starting to drop. Obafemi caught fire, reaching double figures for the campaign, with 11 of his 12 goals coming in the February to April window.
Martin was singing a different tune. “How he is as a character, he just took a bit of time. It was a case of a bit of time for him to work us out, a bit of time for us to work him out,” he said. “He has a great relationship with us and the group, he understands what is required and what we want and he’s really bought into it.”
In March, Kenny extended the invite to Obafemi and was knocked back, with the player preferring to rest with a view to prolonging the first unbroken run of his career. It drew sceptical responses, yet the Irish manager was adamant that Obafemi was ‘sincere’ in his intention to pull on the green jersey. FIFA have moved the goalposts since 2018, with three appearances now required to lock a player to a nation.
However, Kenny’s words proved accurate and Obafemi has reported for this window with a strong chance of picking up another cap or two across this four-game gathering.
Kenny has slowly integrated players across the last year but indicated it might be different in this instance.
He says that Obafemi impressed in an 11 v 11 training game in Abbotstown earlier this week, which may improve his chances of being sprung from the bench tomorrow.
“He is a really good footballer, Michael, he really sees things and I’ve been quite impressed with Michael.”
At the squad announcement, Kenny had stated life would be boring if everyone was the same, which again hints that this is an individual with a bit of personality. Cyrus Christie was on loan with Obafemi for Swansea for the past six months and couldn’t answer the question without referencing his presence off the park. “He’s been unreal since I joined,” he said. “On top of that, he is a lovely lad, a funny character.
“And he gets goals. I’m sure when he steps on that pitch everyone will see what he is capable of.”
When a minor controversy was created by his August 2020 tweet in response to Kenny’s maiden squad, the Ireland supremo explained how he had reservations about how Obafemi might slot into his system. At that stage, he was looking at a back four and one central striker in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Adam Idah ticked the boxes.
Now, Kenny has come around to three at the back and a strategy that often sees two strikers operate through the middle or a central striker supported closely by two others. It plays to the strengths of Obafemi, a speedster who does his best work inside the box and the manager says he sees the Londoner as a number nine in that system.
“It depends on the composition of the front three, and who the two players supporting that are,” he continued, when asked how Obafemi differs from the absent Idah. “Adam is clearly taller than Michael but they do have similar attributes, they’ve both got pace, they make forward runs and Michael has improved his back-to-goal stuff in a major way.
“Adam has got better at that as well. Obviously because Adam is a bigger presence you can play into him more but Michael is good at that as well. I’m not saying he’s going to start because other players have done well, Callum Robinson has scored goals in recent times.” Robinson tends to be given freedom to roam when leading to line, while Obafemi would provide a more direct threat.
“There is obviously more to his game than pace,” stressed Christie earlier this week. “When he gets on the ball and he turns the defence, it can be frightening. He’s got pace, he can dribble with the ball, he can go past people, and he puts himself in the right positions. He might not be in the game a lot, but when he is and he plays on that back shoulder of the defence, he can get himself in there and score goals, and that’s what you need as a striker. If you provide him, I’m sure he will put chances away.”
In a very healthy way, he could prove to be Ireland’s joker in the pack.