Martin O’Neill doesn't rule out capping Michael Obafemi
Dublin-born Southampton striker eligible to declare for Ireland, England or Nigeria
Michael Obafemi at Ireland squad training. “He has got a bit of pace, has got a wee bit something and I was quite impressed by him this morning,” said O’Neill. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Martin O’Neill might be anxious for the Declan Rice saga to be resolved – and in Ireland’s favour – but, as the West Ham midfielder continues to mull over his international future, the Derryman finds himself having to deal with other young players’ dilemmas. No two cases are identical, but the issue of identity is at the heart of them all. “I think,” said the manager, “this is going to raise its head again and again.”
Southampton striker Michael Obafemi is the most pressing case for O’Neill this week. The 18-year-old was born in Dublin to Nigerian parents, but has spent most of the time since in London where he had spells on the books of both Arsenal and Chelsea. He has previously played for the Irish Under-19s but is eligible too for England and Nigeria.
Since the start of the season he has been making waves in the Under-23 team at Southampton and, over the last couple of weeks, fleeting appearances for the first team. This is his first time in with the Irish senior team but, by the sound of things, he has already made an impression.
“We have only done a bit of training there,” said O’Neill afterwards, “but he did very well, very well indeed . . . considering he wouldn’t know too many of the players and he’s a wee bit shy as well. It was short and sharp in training, he finished quite well, held it up and laid off a couple of excellent balls, as a centre-forward might do.
“He is quiet and, obviously, he was not shouting from the rooftops, but he really did fine in the game. These are little five-a-side matches but he has got a bit of pace, has got a wee bit something and I was quite impressed by him this morning. [Callum] O’Dowda scored a very fine goal and it was all to do with the young lad. I will have a look at him over the next couple of days.”
How far beyond that things might go remains to be seen, but O’Neill sounded as though Obafemi might well get a run out against Northern Ireland, and he would not rule out the prospect of an appearance in Denmark, something that rules out a future change of international allegiance.
“If he was really happy with the situation and the family was happy with that there, and it wasn’t just a spur of the moment thing; if I felt that was genuine and that was coming from him, then I wouldn’t have a problem,” he said, without sounding entirely convinced that all of the “ifs” and “buts” will resolve themselves between now and next Monday.
If they do there will be Drogheda-born Jimmy Dunne to move on to. He had been included in last week’s extended squad only to be cut on Monday, along with a handful of others. But O’Neill says he was straight with him from the outset that this would be the way things would pan out.
The Burnley defender, who is currently on loan at Hearts, spent a fair of time in Belfast in his youth but has since played a couple of times for the Republic of Ireland at under-21 level. The IFA are on his case, it seems, but O’Neill seems content to take the chance, given the options currently available to him.
He can be a bit narky. But we’re fine, honestly, really good. Actually, I don’t mind that about him
“We’ll be monitoring his progress,” he said, “and we’re pretty happy with him, the very fact we put him in in the first place [shows that]. If Northern Ireland choose to chase him, then that’s a decision he’ll have to make. I’m not in control of that.”
No more than he is in control of Danny Crowley’s future, say, but the 21-year-old Coventry-born midfielder, formerly of Arsenal, currently doing rather well with Willem II in the Netherlands, says he is ready and waiting for the call.
Burning it up
In an interview with the Telegraph, billed as a piece on how young English talents are burning it up overseas, Crowley confesses that he has, despite having played for both, always felt more Irish and has decided that this is where his future lies. “When I have gone away with England I have never felt like it was me,” says the midfielder, whose father’s family came from Waterford, where he holidayed as a child.
O’Neill will probably win some and lose some over the coming days, weeks and months, but those supporters prone to getting worked up about players struggling to make their minds up will – like the manager, it seems – just have to accustom themselves to the new way of these things.
You never had these issues with Glenn Whelan, of course, but O’Neill laughed when asked about the Dubliner who earned more than 80 caps and who will lead the team out against Northern Ireland on Thursday, admitting he did have some other issues with the Aston Villa player.
“Glenn is a bit like myself,” he said. “He can be a bit narky. But we’re fine, honestly, really good. Actually, I don’t mind that about him. I tell you what he didn’t do – he never shirked responsibility no matter how the game was going. He still wanted to get the ball and that is a really decent sign of a player.
“I’ve a bit of time for him,” he added. “We haven’t always seen eye to eye on things, but he’s been very good.”