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Dublin: 6 °C Wednesday 26 February, 2020

11 months on from Ireland senior debut, Obafemi could be set for first U21 appearance

The Southampton striker has had his troubles with injuries over the past year.

Obafemi pictured training today.
Obafemi pictured training today.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT’S NOT OFTEN players make their U21 debut after their first senior international appearance.

Yet Michael Obafemi’s career trajectory has been anything but normal.

The Dublin-born striker made his first Premier League appearance in January 2018. Aged 17 years and 199 days at the time, he became Southampton’s second-youngest player to feature in the top flight after Luke Shaw.

On the back of some eye-catching club form, Obafemi made his Ireland senior debut last November, coming on as a substitute in the 0-0 draw away to Denmark in the Nations League.

Since then, injury problems have restricted the 19-year-old’s game time. He has featured three times off the bench in the Premier League this season, coupled with two League Cup starts and one winning goal in their 1-0 defeat of Fulham.

And he is by no means guaranteed to start on Thursday night, when Ireland host Italy in a crucial qualifier.

The talented attacker has plenty of competition for a place up front. Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Jonathan Afolabi (who is a concern with a tight hamstring injury) will also be hoping to figure, and the trio have impressed in the campaign so far.

Obafemi’s situation is also complicated by the strict protocols that his club have enforced in relation to his game and training time.

“We’re delighted to have Michael,” Kenny says. “Obviously, we’ve not had him before. He’s just been unfortunate with injury. He played part of Sunday’s game, so he only really had one training session with the group.

Even though he only played less than 20 minutes on Sunday [for Southampton against Chelsea], the protocol around his injuries is that he needs the next day off. He’s on a strict protocol with his programme because of hamstring injuries.

“Yesterday was his first time training with the group. We’ll see what we’re about and for us to see him in the positions. He’s been moved around a bit at Southampton as well. Obviously, he’s someone we’re learning about and I’m delighted he’s in the group.”

One player who Obafemi won’t be competing with for a spot in the team is Aaron Connolly, after the Brighton teenager was called up to the senior squad following his two-goal haul against Spurs at the weekend.

Like Connolly, Obafemi regards himself as a centre forward first and foremost, though he is also capable of playing in a wide attacking role that the Galwegian was also deployed in under Kenny.

“The tendency can be sometimes that smaller players are not utilised as a lone striker, whether that’s right or wrong. There’s no reason why they can’t if you’re playing in a certain way.

“But I think that’s the tendency to get shifted out wide in modern systems, which can vary between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Southampton did play a sort of 4-2-2-2 and he played in the two for a while, which probably stood to him.

“He’s still probably learning about playing out wide. I saw him play against Portsmouth [in the League Cup]. He’s not played much in the last year because of his injuries.

“Michael was eligible for the U19 European Championships this year, so he’s still very young. And he’s obviously done very well in his career to date.”

Obafemi is not the only player in the squad with senior experience who is not a guaranteed starter for Ireland U21s.

Nathan Collins has already played six times for Stoke this season, including a stint as captain, though the 18-year-old — who has missed previous U21 games through injury — might find it difficult to displace the regular centre-back pairing of Conor Masterson and Dara O’Shea, who have impressed since Kenny has taken over.

“I selected Nathan for the last squad and he was injured. He’s a big presence, has a lot of very good attributes and a great attitude and he’s only 18 — it’s amazing to think he’s only 18.

“It looks like, coming in, that he should be a certain starter for us, but with Dara O’Shea and Conor Masterson only conceding two goals in seven games, they’ve both been brilliant in their performances.

“Dara’s on the bench for West Brom. Conor’s on the bench for QPR. They’re not far away [from senior football]. So it’s a problem that you would like to have. It’s good. Nathan obviously has a very bright future and I’m delighted, this is my first time having him in the squad.”

Eoin Toolan and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to give an in-depth breakdown of where Ireland’s play stacks up against the contenders in Japan, and look into why New Zealand and England are primed for World Cup success.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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