Tuesday 19 February 2019

Nigeria stake Michael claim

Schoolboy coach admires youngster's 'drive'

Southampton’s Michael Obafemi misses a chance to to score against Spurs at St Mary’s Stadium
Southampton’s Michael Obafemi misses a chance to to score against Spurs at St Mary’s Stadium

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane may be drafted in to keep Premier League starlet Michael Obafemi on board with Ireland after reports in Nigeria claimed that the Dublin-born striker, who made his Premier League debut last week aged 17, had decided to play for them.

Obafemi became the youngest-ever Irish player in the Premier League after his cameo in Sunday's 1-1 draw with Tottenham.

The forward, who was born in Dublin but raised in London, has worn the Irish jersey, making his debut at U19 level in Euro qualifiers last October.


But a report on a Nigerian website last night claimed that Obafemi, who travelled to Nigeria for a training camp in 2015, would switch allegiance.

"Just last week, we got a call from his mother that he wants to change, he wants to play for Nigeria, not Ireland," a source was quoted as saying. The FAI have declined to comment.

O'Neill would be reluctant to promise a senior call-up to a 17-year-old, but with so few striking options, O'Neill may at least be asked to meet Obafemi and his family to convince them to stick with Ireland.

And one of the figures who helped the 17-year-old reach the Premier League feels that he has the drive needed.

"He has a lot of desire, and that counts for a lot," says Richard Williams, a London-based coach and scout who, as manager of Obafemi's schoolboy club Ryan FC, helped develop the player.

"Getting into the first team at Southampton on a regular basis is the first challenge he has to face. He had such potential when he was younger, he was like a wild child. I think he will take it upon himself to develop. I know he will be disappointed to miss the chance he had against Spurs on Sunday."

It's hard to predict what sort of career an Irish player can have once he gets a taste of the big league, as our panel shows.

Obafemi was born in Dublin, but his family moved to England when he was just a three-year-old. He soon hooked up with London club Ryan FC, based in Waltham Forest.

They boast some famous graduates, most notably current Newcastle United man Dwight Gayle, and have seen many kids come through their ranks to win professional contracts.

Ryan FC coach Richard Williams was already aware of the talent in the family, as he'd coached Michael's older brother, Aflolabi (now 23 and playing non-league football in England), and it was his contacts with Afolabi which led him to first encounter Michael, or "Mikey" as he calls him, at the age of four.

Williams, who previously scouted for Chelsea and now does work for Arsenal, says that Michael had spells at Arsenal, Watford and Orient before the move to Southampton last year, but cut his teeth with Ryan FC.

"We're a grassroots club," Williams says. "Our first team don't play in what you might call senior football, but in terms of bringing in youngsters, we have helped produce a lot of talent.

"I actually took Mikey to Chelsea and they really liked him, but the family weren't able to do the journey to Cobham, so he went to Arsenal and he had a spell with Watford (as well).

"We had a good crop of players there at the time with Mikey. Joe Willock, who has gone on to play for Arsenal's first team, Dujon Sterling, who has played for Chelsea. Mikey reminds me of Jermain Defoe, small enough, but very quick."


Williams told the Herald that he's unsure which path the player will follow internationally. "I know he has played for Ireland's U19s, I know he has a family tie to Nigeria, but I can see no reason why he'd change," he said.

"This is the start of Mikey's career, hopefully, he will develop with Southampton and Ireland. Southampton have a great record for producing players and selling them for big money, who knows where Michael could end up but he has a very bright future ahead of him."

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