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O'Neill dismisses 'ludicrous' notion of fast-tracking Obafemi to avoid Rice repeat

‘To have that criticism directed at you is lunacy. Real lunacy,’ said the Ireland manager.

Paul Dollery reports from Aarhus, Denmark

MARTIN O’NEILL HASN’T ruled out the possibility of handing a debut to Michael Obafemi in tomorrow night’s Uefa Nations League dead rubber against Denmark.

However, the Republic of Ireland manager has insisted that if Obafemi is given his first taste of senior international football, it won’t merely be a cheap attempt to remove the 18-year-old’s scope to switch his allegiance.

Michael Obafemi Michael Obafemi training at Ceres Park in Aarhus this evening. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Obafemi has already represented Ireland up as far as U19 level. However, the striker is also eligible to play for Nigeria and England, having been born in Dublin to Nigerian parents before being raised in London.

The Southampton striker appeared to remove any doubts last week when his representatives issued a statement which stated that “Michael is 100% committed” to Ireland. Nevertheless, the issue can’t officially be put to bed until he plays for the Boys in Green in a competitive fixture, such as tomorrow night’s game in Aarhus.

Obafemi received his first call-up from Martin O’Neill for this international window and was an unused substitute in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.

“He has definitely committed himself to us now. Those are the discussions that we had,” O’Neill said at this evening’s pre-match press conference, when asked about Obafemi’s prospects of featuring in Ireland’s final fixture of the inaugural Nations League campaign.

“He obviously wants to play. I’ll have a look at it. I’ll see how we are tomorrow morning, just before the game. We have three subs, not like the other evening when you could have six, so I’ll have a little look at that situation.”

O’Neill was then involved in a slightly tense exchange with Tony O’Donoghue, after the RTÉ reporter asked the Ireland boss about the prospect of receiving criticism if he doesn’t cap Obafemi, bearing in mind how Declan Rice’s situation has transpired.

Martin O'Neill Martin O'Neill at this evening's pre-match press conference in Aarhus. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Rice made similar noises to Obafemi when pressed about his commitment previously. The West Ham youngster played in three friendlies for Ireland earlier this year, but the future of the London-born midfielder as an international footballer has since been thrown up in the air by an approach from England manager Gareth Southgate.

Despite the fact that he had made just five Premier League appearances — three of them from the bench — by that stage, some recent commentary has suggested that O’Neill should have capped Rice in Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Moldova in October 2017. The Ireland boss shot down that idea this evening.

“To think about putting him on for a couple of minutes just to cap him is crazy, crazy thinking; that you should have your mindset on that,” he said. “Secondly, and probably as important, the player would know. So I would say if Declan had thoughts about who he was going to play for, I think that would have reared its head at that particular time.

“So to have that criticism directed at you is lunacy. Real lunacy. There are certain things I’m responsible for, but someone making their mind up — the word ‘entrapment’ was used — is not in my headspace. Far from it. I think that whole situation is absolutely ludicrous.

“Obafemi is in exactly the same position. If he has committed himself to us, as he has done, then perhaps we will think about playing him in the game. But it’s been his choice and his family’s choice, and that is totally different to Declan.”

O’Neill added: “You are pre-empting something that may or may not happen. Obafemi is with us. He’s in the squad. He has a chance of playing. He has a chance of starting. He has a chance of coming on. That’s fine. He has also — most importantly — committed himself to us, so that’s a much easier scenario than Declan Rice’s. A really much easier one.

Declan Rice Declan Rice has won three Ireland caps in friendlies. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“There are certain things that I think I might have control of, but to entrap someone and put him on for a couple of minutes against Moldova when we needed to win the game… We were shorn of quite a number of players that night, so it wasn’t the first thought in my head, to be putting Declan Rice on. I’m not so sure that Declan was even in the squad.

“But as I said to you, Declan would be well aware of that. This is not something that just came up while he was making his decision. He had played some friendly matches for us. He enjoyed it immensely. We were encouraging him too, but he didn’t need encouragement.

“Declan was delighted to play in the games, and these were senior matches he played in. He played three senior games. When the decision had to come, he made a decision to hold fire. I respect that decision.”

O’Neill’s sentiments were echoed by Ireland captain Seamus Coleman: “Michael has been great. He’s a strong boy and he’s scored a few fine finishes in training. He’s been great around the camp. We’ve been happy to have him in with us and, as the manager has said, the proudest thing growing up that I’ve ever done is to put on that green shirt.

“You can’t just be handed out caps — not just Michael in particular. Michael has done great but, as the manager said about Declan, you can’t just go, ‘right, we’ll give you a game so you stay with us’. If the lad wants to stay with us then great, but you can’t just be handing out international caps.

“It’s the best feeling in the world, but you’ve got to earn it. You can’t just be given a cap to tie you down because the media says that you could go to the North or you could go to England, Wales or whatever the case may be. You’ve got to want to play for your country and earn it.”

Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League - St Mary's Stadium Michael Obafemi made his Southampton debut against Tottenham Hotspur in January. Source: Mark Kerton

O’Neill reiterated that Obafemi — whose first-team experience with Southampton amounts to three substitute appearances — is still very much in his infancy as a senior footballer.

“Michael looks as if he’s got good talent,” he said. “He’s a young lad coming through, he’s played in the U19s, made a couple of substitute appearances for Southampton’s first team and that’s good. That means that at club level he’s making a bit of progress.

“But he’d be the first one to say that he has a long way to go at this minute, and that would go for a number of the players that we have here and that we have capped.”

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Paul Dollery

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