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18-year-old Southampton striker earns praise after first Ireland call-up

Michael Obafemi has already appeared twice in the Premier League.

Michael Obafemi has impressed at underage level with Southampton.
Michael Obafemi has impressed at underage level with Southampton.
Image: Gareth Fuller

MARTIN O’NEILL BELIEVES Michael Obafemi could be an important player for Ireland in the future if the Southampton youngster can continue his current rate of progress.

The 18-year-old striker was one of four first-time call-ups in the Irish squad announced earlier today, ahead of games against Northern Ireland and Denmark later this month.

Ireland have struggled for goals in recent times, drawing blanks in their most recent Nations League clashes with Denmark and Wales, while O’Neill has lamented the absence of a natural goalscorer in the side ever since Robbie Keane’s retirement.

Obafemi is one of a number of players who could potentially help fill that void, having impressed at underage level for Southampton.

The teenage starlet was born in Dublin, but was brought up in London, and so could technically still represent England as well as Nigeria, where his parents were born.

However, if the talented youngster makes the final cut for the squad, an appearance in the Nations League against Denmark would tie him down to the Irish team for the remainder of his career.

Obafemi, who has already represented Ireland at U19 level, is highly thought of at Southampton. He made his Premier League debut off the bench against Tottenham last season, in the process becoming the Saints’ second youngest top-flight debutant ever behind current Man United and England star, Luke Shaw.

The young striker subsequently made his second Premier League appearance last weekend, playing the final 17 minutes of his side’s 6-1 hammering by Man City. 

“He’s getting close now to first-team football, which Southampton feel — even in these tough times that they’re having at club level,” the Ireland boss said at a press conference to announce the squad today.

“There’s a willingness there. I think he’s got a little bit of pace, he’s strong and he’s making his way in the game. He has a long way to go, of course.”

Obafemi is not the only new face to be included in today’s 36-man provisional squad. Defender Jimmy Dunne also earns his first call-up. Reports had linked the Dundalk-born player with a switch of allegiance to Northern Ireland, though today’s developments suggest the centre-back has his mind firmly fixed on representing the Republic for now.

The 21-year-old signed a new contract with Burnley in the summer, but faces stiff competition for a spot in the Clarets’ first XI, with the more experienced Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and Kevin Long all currently ahead of him in the pecking order.

Consequently, at the start of the new campaign, Dunne went on loan to Hearts. The youngster has since featured regularly for the Scottish side, who are currently one point ahead of Celtic at the top of the league, though a 5-0 loss suffered against Brendan Rodgers’ side at the weekend suggests they may not stay in first place for much longer.

He’s gone up to Hearts — it’s been a difficult week for Hearts and himself,” O’Neill said. “He’s arrived at the scene, I’ve spoken to him and he’s delighted to be announced in the squad.

“I do have to pare it down in the next few days. Let’s see how the weekend goes, but overall, [they are] some people to keep in mind, and it’s worthwhile. Some young players are coming through and over time, I’m hoping they’ll make the breakthrough and become proper players in the senior squad.”

Burnley v Espanyol - Pre-Season Friendly - Turf Moor Burnley youngster Jimmy Dunne, who is currently on loan at Hearts, was among the new faces named in today's Ireland squad. Source: Anthony Devlin

In addition to Obafemi and Dunne, Ryan Manning and Caoimhin Kelleher received their first call-ups.

Manning was a regular for the Ireland U21 team in their most recent qualification campaign, and the young attacker has impressed since joining Rotherham on loan from fellow Championship side QPR at the beginning of the season.

The 22-year-old Galway native scored twice last weekend, as his side overcame Swansea 2-1, prompting praise for the youngster from former QPR boss Ian Holloway.

“I like the kid, I think he’s got a wonderful left foot,” Holloway told EFL on Quest.

“He’s a fantastic lad, he sums up where Rotherham are. Ryan’s been an excellent signing.”

O’Neill, meanwhile, had words of encouragement today for Kelleher, who unlike Manning, has yet to taste football at senior level, but is similarly considered a good prospect for the future.

The 19-year-old Cork-born stopper has been on the fringes of Liverpool’s first team for a while now, featuring in the Reds’ Champions League squad for tonight’s tie with Red Star Belgrade.

And O’Neill said Kelleher warranted inclusion in his squad while emphasising that he had not drawn a line under more experienced alternatives, such as 34-year-old Sheffield Wednesday stopper Keiren Westwood, who is currently out injured and has found himself out of favour at the Championship club this season. 

“My thoughts are exactly what we’ve talked about before with young players coming in and the experience of senior players when they’re called upon at competitive level that at least they’ve overcome that hurdle, they’re not concerned about the surroundings for the first three or four days and that’s it.

Kelleher has been very impressive. He came to train with us for a few days and he’s a very impressive young man as well too. [It's] very exciting that he is involved at Liverpool. He travels with them — he tells me he’s played some matches in the summertime. He’s got a long career ahead of him.

“But for instance, we have Colin Doyle as one of our back-up goalkeepers at this moment, who chose to go to Hearts, doesn’t play in Hearts’ side sometimes — you do have a problem with that.

“It would be nice at some stage or another if Keiren Westwood, who I still think is a quality goalkeeper, gets himself right. I hope that he wouldn’t have thought that his club and international career is over — we do need some quality goalkeepers.”

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Paul Fennessy

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