Rising Star

'When I was 15 I sat down with my mum and said: 'This is what I want to do'. I still have a long way to go'

Michael Obafemi on becoming Southampton’s youngest ever Premier League goalscorer and making his Ireland debut.

MICHAEL OBAFEMI IS all smiles as he sits down in Dublin to chat about what has been a monumental, life-changing past year for the 18-year-old Southampton striker.

A warm and courteous young man, he shakes the hand of everyone in the room and asks for their name before politely casting his mind back and recalling the various accolades and accomplishments he has achieved since the start of last year.

Michael Obafemi Michael Obafemi was in Dublin to promote the Coca-Cola Premier League Trophy Tour. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

There was his Premier League debut in front of 30,000 spectators at St Mary’s against Tottenham aged just 17 last January. Then there was his first senior start for the Saints against Leicester in the EFL Cup earlier this season.

Obafemi bagged his first goal in a 3-1 defeat of Huddersfield Town back in November, also making appearances against Man United, Arsenal and champions Man City. Oh, and there was his highly-awaited senior Ireland debut against Denmark in the Uefa Nations League too.

Not a bad year, by all accounts. But the 18-year-old is taking it all in his stride. His calmly-taken strike against David Wagner’s Huddersfield at the John Smith Stadium three days before Christmas wrote Obafemi’s name into the history books as he became Southampton’s youngest-ever Premier League goalscorer.

The record has a nice ring to it, but he doesn’t dwell on any of his achievements for too long. “I tend not to think about it because I’m just trying to create more moments in history,” he explains.

“That’s obviously in the history books now but I want to create more history by scoring as many goals as I can. I just want to keep getting more achievements and achievements and achievements.”

Huddersfield Town v Southampton - Premier League - John Smith's Stadium Obafemi celebrates scoring his first Southampton goal with Nathan Redmond. Richard Sellers Richard Sellers

The forward’s enthusiasm is infectious, with Obafemi not downtrodden in the slightest despite being ruled out for the remainder of the season with a hamstring setback which Saints boss Ralph Hasenhüttl described as “a disaster” last month.

He hopes to be back in time to be in Mick McCarthy’s thoughts ahead of June’s Euro qualifiers against Denmark and Gibraltar, but cannot say for certain if he will be recovered in time for the double-header in nine weeks.

Just like every time he pulls on the green jersey, he says it would be another honour to get the call-up for the qualifiers in Copenhagen and Dublin. But he is currently just focussing on maintaining his recovery as things stand. Club football is out of the question between now and the end of the 2018/19 campaign.

“The way my hamstring is healing, they didn’t think surgery was needed,” Obafemi says. “When I come back from this injury in the middle of May, the end of May, I’m going to go away on a training camp and get myself as fit as possible to make sure I can deal with the demands that will be put on me in pre-season, so that I can get back into the team.”

Southampton FC / YouTube

He would love to be involved as McCarthy’s men try and build on recent back-to-back wins against Gibraltar and Georgia. Even while watching the two wins on TV last week he was picturing himself in attacking scenarios on the pitch.

“I watched the two Ireland games recently and I was watching them thinking what I would do if I was there, especially in terms of my linkup play. I don’t think it’s taken off the cards yet [playing in June's qualifiers], but the main focus at the moment is pre-season. But we’ll just have to wait and see. I’ve not spoken to Mick McCarthy yet, but I think that’s a conversation that is waiting to happen.”

Denmark was the location where Obafemi made his first senior appearance in the green jersey, brought on as a late substitute by Martin O’Neill in a 0-0 Uefa Nations League stalemate away in Aarhus.

Questions were raised by some about whether the teenager would declare for England, where he was raised in London, or for Nigeria, where his parents grew up, but Obafemi insists again that he had zero intention of choosing anyone but Ireland.

“I never really entertained any other options. I didn’t speak to any other country. I knew in my mind what I was going to do and what I can do.

“The thing is, I didn’t really pay attention [to social media]. Obviously you see little bits, but I didn’t really think about it and it didn’t hinder my decision. It didn’t really play a part in my mind because obviously I knew myself that I was going to pick Ireland.

“Anything anyone was saying about me just went to the back of my mind. It didn’t mean anything.”

Obafemi released a comprehensive statement in November declaring that he was, without any doubt, “100% committed” to playing for Ireland. Looking back on his debut in Denmark, he smiles and says it was one of the proudest achievements of his career so far, despite the freezing weather conditions.

“It was cold. Very, very cold,” Obafemi grins.

Obviously it was my first cap… unreal. I was playing against Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, who’s a team-mate at Southampton. I saw him after the game and he told me that I had done well. I think it was a good game and we did well to get the draw.”

Photographers in Aarhus captured an emotional moment shortly after full-time. Obafemi made his way over to his mother Bola and brother Affy and shared an embrace with his family to mark his coming of age as a senior Ireland international aged just 18.

“My mum and my brother come to every game,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter if I’m on the bench or starting at club level, or international level.

Leicester City v Southampton - Carabao Cup - Fourth Round - King Power Stadium Battling for the ball with Leicester City's Caglar Soyuncu. Joe Giddens Joe Giddens

“They were both there for the Northern Ireland friendly game and have been there for all of my first-team games at club level too, so I’m just thankful for their support.”

Obafemi has said that his family are a driving force of motivation in his life and recalls the moment when he knew he could really kick on and make it at an elite level as a potential Premier League footballer.

“When I was 15 I sat down with my mum and said ‘this is what I want to do’. She supported me and said as long as I give 100% that she would support me all the way. I am where I am now and I still have a long way to go.”

Obafemi’s rise has been incredibly quick, but it is an elevation which he has taken on full steam-ahead. He admits there were nerves when he was called upon by Mauricio Pellegrino to make his debut against Spurs last January, but after a while it was the most natural thing in the world. Just like any other game of football.

It was very surreal, because that was the first ‘big crowd’ that I played against. I was on the bench that night and just warming up.

“He [Pellegrino] called me over and I was just like ‘Ah shit.’ I wasn’t expecting it, but then when I actually got on the pitch I was like: ‘Ah, okay. This isn’t too bad’.

“I felt at ease and it felt like a normal football match. Obviously a chance came to score and I missed, but it’s definitely got to be one of my favourite memories. The call-up caught me off guard.

Michael Obafemi with his mother Bola and brother Affy after the game Obafemi with his mother Bola and brother Affy after making his Ireland debut in Denmark. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I was with the U18s and that week we were playing Fulham. I came in and the U18s coach told me I wasn’t playing today, he told me that I was getting called up to the senior team.

“After training I saw my name on the team sheet and knew I was in the squad. I remember waking up the next morning thinking ‘I’m on the bench!’ It was my first time playing at St Mary’s and it was a big crowd. I was a bit anxious and nervous, but when I actually came on I was happy and free.”

Obafemi counts Nathan Redmond as one of his close friends within the Southampton ranks and says that being set up for his first goal against Huddersfield by Redmond made it extra sweet.

I could have scored a hat-trick in that game,” he laughs. “But I was glad to get the one at least. When I scored it was Nathan who set me up, which made it even more special. I was just happy that I could contribute to the team.”

The striker recently signed a new deal with Southampton until 2022, with manager Hasenhüttl lamenting praise on the Ireland international since taking over from Mark Hughes.

“He is a cool guy,” the former RB Leipzig boss said after Obafemi’s goal against Huddersfield in December. “Really has quality.”

Obafemi likewise has full respect for the Austrian coach and has enjoyed some of his best football since Hasenhüttl took over at the start of December. 

“Obviously he’s come out in the press saying that I’m a cool guy,” he grins.

Huddersfield Town v Southampton - Premier League - John Smith's Stadium Ralph Hasenhuttl has praised Obafemi's development at Southampton this season. Richard Sellers Richard Sellers

“I like him as a guy, he’s a nice guy. He knows what he wants from the team and obviously we’re performing now and getting away from the relegation zone. We’ve got a big game coming up on Friday against Liverpool where we’ll be hoping to get a result as well.

“From where we were before he came in to now is a big difference. The mood around the changing room is a lot better. Everyone is just more together, everyone has bonded on team nights out.”

Obafemi didn’t spend too much time working under Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, but says he is thankful to both men for giving him the opportunity to make his senior debut under their tenure. Keane isn’t as scary as he is portrayed, Obafemi says.

To be fair, I went in there thinking ‘oh shit I’m going to be scared of this guy’. He’s actually a nice guy when you speak to him. He is a nice guy.

“But I remember one time in the game against Denmark I lost the ball and he was screaming at me for ages. I was thinking ‘ah shit’, but he is a nice guy. It was great to meet him and to play under him. It was just an honour to be involved.”

Michael Obafemi The 18-year-old hopes to be back fit in time for June's Euro 2020 qualifier double-header. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Obafemi doesn’t want to dwell too much on all that he has achieved since making his Southampton debut in front of 30,000 against Tottenham just 15 months ago, but instead is laser-focussed on what lies further down the tracks.

He has his Premier League debut, his first Premier League goal, is Southampton’s youngest ever league scorer and has broken into the Ireland senior squad all at the age of 18. But there’s more to achieve, Obfaemi insists. More history to be made.

There’s still a lot more that I’ve got to tick off,” he says. “[I want] my first senior Ireland goal, my first goal at St Mary’s, my first goal at the Aviva.

“There is still a lot more that I’ve gotta do. Reach five caps, ten caps too. I’ve just got to be patient.”

Coca-Cola is giving Irish football fans a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the iconic Premier League Trophy this April.

Get down to Dundrum Town Centre on Saturday, April 13th, between 10am and 6pm, to hear from the Republic of Ireland’s rising star Michael Obafemi and be in with a chance to win exclusive VIP match day box tickets.

To find out more about Coca-Cola’s partnership with the Premier League and see the full schedule of upcoming activity, visit Join the conversation using #WhereEveryonePlays.

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