It might only have been a cameo in training but Martin O’Neill seems to have been much taken with the impression made by Michael Obafemi on his first day with the senior squad in Abbotstown.
“He did very well, very well indeed, considering he wouldn’t know too many of the players and he’s a wee bit shy as well,” said the manager of the Southampton striker.
“It was short and sharp in training, he finished quite well and laid off a couple of excellent balls as a centre-forward might do, held it up and laid it off to someone. (Callum) O’Dowda scored a very fine goal and it was all to do with the young lad. These are little five-a-side matches but he has got a bit of pace, has got a wee bit of something, and I was quite impressed by him this morning.”
With injury to Shane Long subtracting from Ireland’s options upfront, there’s a decent chance that Obafemi, already capped at U19 level for Ireland, could make his senior debut in Thursday’s friendly against Northern Ireland but, given that the 18-year-old is currently eligible to play for the Republic, Nigeria, and England, putting him in against Denmark in the Nations League next Monday would be a very different matter.
“I’d have to leave that with him and his family,” O’Neill said. “If he was really happy with the situation and the family was happy with it and it wasn’t just a spur of the moment thing, if I felt that was genuine and was coming from him, then I wouldn’t have a problem.”
That said, the manager, for what should be very obvious reasons, is only too well aware of the complexities which can be involved when a player is faced with making a career-long commitment at a young age.
“I wouldn’t go too much with self protection of the player,” O’Neill said, “but you have to make them aware that this is what we want for the rest of your career and as long as you are happy with it and you don’t have regrets six months later...that’s not something I’d be too happy with. As long as they are absolutely certain this is what they want to do, then I would go with it.”
In the wake of the Jack Grealish experience and the continuing Declan Rice saga, this is hardly new territory for Irish football and, in the manager’s view, only likely to become even more familiar in the future.
“The question was asked earlier as to whether this is going to become a more common occurrence and you can see it happening with players,” said O’Neill. “Everybody is aware of the rules, let me put it this way, all the players are well aware of the rules, but you would not want to promise somebody and then when he plays one game, you discover that he is not really up to what you think and that you maybe stopped him from going somewhere else.”
The long-term solution to the eligibility dilemma, O’Neill suggested, lies with Fifa, with his own preference clearly being that a friendly cap at senior level should carry the same weight as a competitive one.
“If you play a friendly game and are wearing the senior shirt — (after) the whole build up to it, you’ve played at U17, U19, U21 — it has to count for something,” he said. “You might run holes through my argument but it’s certainly going to be a topic of conversation for Fifa and it won’t be that far away.”
In the meantime, another case in point is Hearts’ defender Jimmy Dunne who is eligible to play for the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Dunne was in O’Neill’s provisional squad for the upcoming games but has been left out of the final panel, something that won’t have come as a surprise to the player.
“I told him exactly what I was doing,” said O’Neill. “I put him into squad originally, but he wasn’t going to make the final one. We’re keeping an eye on him. The decision will be up to him. We’ll be monitoring his progress, and we’re pretty happy with him — the very fact we put him in in the first place (shows that).
“If Northern Ireland choose to chase him, then that’s a decision he’ll have to make. I’m not in control of that. I think that he would prefer to play for us but people have a choice to make and if that choice is still there after a while it is up to them.
“We have some players at this minute who are in front of him and that is the point I made to him.”
Having previously complained about the Republic poaching players from Northern Ireland, Michael O’Neill’s recent admission that he had made an approach to Dunne — who, although hailing from Blackrock, Co Louth qualifies for the North through a grandparent — was seized upon by Martin O’Neill yesterday with some glee. “I’ll meet him (Michael) on Wednesday night, and I’m going to give it to him, both barrels,” he said with a grin.
In team news for Thursday, O’Neill confirmed that James McClean, who has once again found himself in the eye of the annual poppy storm, will play some part in the game against the North.
“Whether he starts or not I don’t know but he will play,” he said. “I won’t be fearful of playing him.”
And, as already revealed, Glenn Whelan will lead the team out.
“We haven’t always seen eye to eye on things,” said O’Neill of the evergreen, “but he’s been very good. Glenn is a bit like myself, he can be a bit narky. But we’re fine, honestly, really good. Actually, I don’t mind that about him. I tell you what he didn’t do, he never shirked responsibility no matter how the game was going. He still wanted to get the ball and that is a really decent sign of a player.”
Finally, O’Neill revealed that “personal issues” were the reason for Ciaran Clark having to withdraw from the panel for the next two games.