Michael Obafemi looking to make up for lost time with Ireland
Southampton striker has been hit with injuries but is eager to make his mark again
Michael Obafemi: “It’s been bittersweet but hopefully I can get rid of the injuries and then just kick on.” Photograph: Morgan Treacy/inpho
Michael Obafemi expects to be fit and hopes to be available for Ireland’s various end of season activities but the 18-year-old striker already sounds as if he is being gently nudged by his club towards prioritising the good preseason he knows he needs after a campaign badly disrupted by injury.
The Dublin-born teenager hasn’t kicked a ball since February 24th when his return from a longish lay off with a hamstring injury was ended after just 15 minutes by a recurrence of the problem. On the face of it, he could play for the Under-19s at the European Championships in Armenia or the Under-21s in Toulon. Although his preference, having made his debut under Martin O’Neill in Aarhus last November, is clearly to be involved with the senior team for the qualifying games back in Denmark and then at home to Gibraltar.
Southampton, he acknowledges, however, are bound to have their say.
“I think I’ll be fit for it [the start of June], yeah, but whether the club will let me risk getting injured again, that may be the question,” says the striker. “I’m not too sure, it’s how good my hamstring is at that time, whether they have confidence that I can be able to play in them games.
“Obviously I’d rather be with the first team squad [if they do], but if it’s Under-19 Euros I’d happily play in that.”
Stephen Kenny has, in fact, clearly signalled that Obafemi would have played for him rather than Mick McCarthy had he been fit last month. In the absence of any senior club appearances between now and then, he would seem to require a bit of an injury crisis to get a promotion in June. Ireland’s options up front are limited, though, and even the relatively limited amount of first team Premier League football he has played gives him an edge over a few of his rivals.
His progress has clearly been disrupted by all of the injuries and he readily agrees with Southampton boss Ralph Hasenhüttl’s description of the relapse he suffered just 15 minutes after coming on against Arsenal as “a disaster,” for him.
“Yeah, I’d say so as well,” he says. “Obviously it was my third one and I’d just come back from eight weeks out or so. I missed a lot of games, the January games, the cup games and stuff which I probably would have played in. I think it was a disaster because I’m missing the remainder of the season. I would have liked to have contributed all I could to the team but obviously I can’t.
“When I’ve been playing, I think I’ve been doing well and contributing well to the team. Obviously I got my first goal against Huddersfield and then I got injured the day after. It’s been bittersweet but hopefully I can get rid of the injuries and then just kick on.”
The season has of course, still had its moments. After just one appearance in 2017/18, against Tottenham when he missed something of a sitter after having come on from the bench, there have been seven appearances this year during which he scored that goal and did well enough generally to nail down a new contract.
Then there was his senior debut for Ireland in Aarhus, an occasion probably best remembered, given the drab nature of the game, for the hugely endearing image of Obafemi embracing his mother at the front of the stand afterwards.
“It was surreal,” he says, cheerily. “I didn’t really think I was going to come on because there was the game first at Aviva Stadium and I thought I’d come on there. I didn’t but I was just happy to make my debut and a full cap. It was a tough game against Denmark but it was a great day.”
His mother, he says, somehow seems to get to pretty much every game he plays and was never going to miss the occasion.
And as far as he was concerned, he insists, it was always going to be Ireland he played for. He laughs off suggestions that there was an approach after talks with the Nigerian FA as “crap,” and says that there was never any contact from the English FA.
“Even if they did, I don’t think I’d have gone anyway,” he says. “My Mum is supportive of my decision, my brother (Affy, himself a professional player in England’s lower leagues), everyone is supportive. They asked what I wanted to do, I said what I wanted to do and they stuck by me.
“I was born in Dublin,” he continues. “My mum was visiting her sisters. I think I moved back to London a couple of weeks later, where I grew up. So I didn’t stay too long but when I come here I still feel like I am home.”
Michael Obafemi was in Dublin to publicise his Coca Cola sponsored appearance with the Premier League trophy at Dundrum shopping centre on Saturday, April 13th, and other events. Details are available at coca-cola.ie/premier-league or cocacolaie on Facebook.