Sunday 15 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'The most interesting part of Jonathan Afolabi's Celtic move is the length of the contract'

Jonathan Afolabi at Celtic training.
Jonathan Afolabi at Celtic training.
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE most interesting aspect of Tallaght teen Jonathan Afolabi's move to Celtic is the length of his deal.

Afolabi - who turns 20 in January - was released by Southampton in May. That is a deeply uncertain time for a young professional and their next move is often make or break territory.

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In that context, the fact that the striker has secured a three-year contract with the Scottish champions is a positive as it shows they are willing to give him time to find his feet.

It highlights the extent of the impact that Afolabi made in the European U19 Championships for Ireland last month.

Prior to that, he was in limbo. After Southampton showed him the door, there was training spells with Millwall and Shamrock Rovers and League of Ireland champions Dundalk were keen to bring him on board. Afolabi could have signed for clubs there and then on a shorter-term arrangement but decided to wait and throw his energies into the tournament in Armenia.

That gamble paid off as he was one of Ireland's star players on their charge to the semi-finals and was voted into the Team of the Tournament by UEFA. The only downside of that experience was the seriously harsh booking that ruled him out of their defeat to Portugal.

Afolabi's performances in that competition alerted a host of suitors to what he could do. The key moment for the showreel was the goal against the Czech Republic, which was all about his pace and power. He was the only player in the Czech half when Irish defender Kameron Ledwidge punted the ball forward from the edge of his own penalty area with Tom Mohan's team keen to relieve pressure.

Afolabi had the speed to get there ahead of two Czechs, unceremoniously dumping their captain to the ground before regaining his own balance to drive home.

Ireland had a goal out of nowhere. The attributes demonstrated by Afolabi in that instance were always going to bring attention. Every manager wants an attacker with the capability to be that effective on the counter attack.

Still, it's early days to assess how Afolabi will fare at senior level against savvy operators. Neil Lennon said at the weekend that he was a 'raw' talent who would get the chance to train with the senior team over the next couple of weeks. But this was essentially a free hit for Celtic, with no transfer fee involved. Afolabi will go into their development group along with Luca Connell, the highly touted summer signing from Bolton who spent a week away with Mick McCarthy's senior squad in Portugal prior to that move. Afolabi will be reunited with Tipp native Barry Coffey, another member of that U19 side.

Connell missed the U19 finals because he was named in Celtic's Champions League squad but he ended up playing no role in their aborted attempt to reach that competition and it's clear that he will have to be patient. Hoops fans are demanding that the hierarchy spend big on established talent in light of their European struggles and that's always going to be the concern for emerging stars at Parkhead. They do have a good record of bringing through their own players but the recent track record of Irish graduates has been mixed.

Darren O'Dea did progress to participate in some major Champions League nights, but spent the bulk of his senior career elsewhere. Cillian Sheridan also packed his bags early and has travelled around the world. Paul O'Connell's cousin Eoghan O'Connell was on the fringes as a teen and played in the Champions League but the 24-year-old is now at Rochdale. A variety of others didn't make a Celtic appearance before faring better elsewhere. It's a good learning environment for rising stars, yet it's a big ask to last the course and become a leading light in the first team.

So that's why it would be premature to put pressure on Afolabi, a son of Nigerian parents whose mother would prefer him to play for her homeland. He says that he feels Irish and is emerging in a position where options are needed, although the picture is changing at underage level.

The irony here is that Afolabi's profile may not have soared to the same extent if Mohan had his first choice options available for Armenia.

At the beginning of the campaign, his preferred pair was the highly touted Troy Parrott and Adam Idah, the two most highly touted homegrown talents of this generation. Despite being from the 2002 age group - Afolabi is 2000 - they were bumped up to starting berths.

But Parrott and Idah were needed by Spurs and Norwich respectively in pre-season so they were never going to travel. Idah was fast-tracked to lead the line for Stephen Kenny's U21 side in Toulon.

Mohan was also unable to call on Afolabi's ex-Southampton colleagues Michael Obafemi, Will Ferry and Will Smallbone who all had commitments at the club that had deemed Afolabi surplus to requirements.

So it's fair to say that the St Joseph's Boys export had a bit of a point to prove to people in the game who clearly felt there was better in his age group. A direction-changing summer has given Afolabi the opportunity to show that good things come to those who wait.

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