Aribo looking to strike gold in play-off push

2023-24/Player Features/Joe Aribo/MW_Southampton_Swansea_191_izwypz

Brimming with confidence in the middle of the park, combining fast feet and nutmegs with battling duels, Joe Aribo has hit his stride in the heart of Southampton's midfield…

Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ has become a staple song at St Mary’s these days, and there’s only one man’s performances to thank for that.

In the 83rd minute of Southampton’s return to winning ways against Coventry back in April, Joe Aribo was withdrawn to a standing ovation from the stands, and another rendition of his now-customary chant, after a midfield masterclass of a performance.

It wasn’t the first time that evening the stadium had been in full voice, as Aribo shone with an indestructible display in a 2-1 victory that released some tension after three matches without a win.

Aribo acknowledging the St Mary's faithful against Coventry. (Photos: Matt Watson)

“It's always an amazing feeling,” Aribo reflected on his love-in from the fans, and his vote on the evening as the supporters’ Player of the Match.

“For me, when I step out on the pitch, I always want to impress, I always want to put on a show and I was happy that I was able to do that. So yeah, it's a good feeling.

“I want to put in good performances for the team and leave my mark on the pitch and I felt like I was able to do that.”

On the chant itself, the Nigerian No. 7 even gave it his official seal of approval.

“I love it – it's funny because on the way in, just before pre-match, I had a group of kids that were looking at the stadium and they were singing the chant as well. I really do like it.”

Aribo has been an integral part of Russell Martin’s side of late, after fully bedding himself back into the side since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations in February.

His insurgence throughout the campaign has been a steady one, with the central midfielder now reaping the rewards for his tireless work behind the scenes.

“I think the start [of the season] for me was a bit frustrating because I knew what I was capable of but I just wasn't fully ready, I wasn't always there and fully fit,” Aribo admitted.

Putting in the work at Staplewood paid dividends for Aribo this season.

“I had a few injuries at the beginning, which was a bit frustrating, so it was a bit start-stop but yeah, the most important thing is finishing strong and that's what I aim to do.

“For me, when I wasn't playing and I was training, I was always letting the manager know that I’m ready.

“So in training games, I'm always giving my all; even on days off, I'm doing my extras, I'm doing gym sessions so I'm sure that I'm ready for when the opportunity comes.

“That's what it's all about, ultimately – when the opportunity comes, you have to take it to see if you're ready or not.”

That consistency and diligence of work clearly caught the eye of his manager, who has held Aribo in high regard since his first spell of starts before heading to AFCON.

Aribo was a key figure in December, earning his place on the plane with Nigeria in January and February, before gradually picking up where he left off upon his return to Saints.

During his absence, Russell Martin wasn’t shy in sharing that his side were missing the midfield maestro, and that praise only continued into March and April.

Russell Martin is a big admirer of his midfield man.

"He is a top player, he was excellent.” Martin summarised after Aribo's display against Coventry.

“It was a huge amount of minutes for him [against Blackburn] and then against Coventry – Joe is a top player. It took him a while when he got back because he hadn’t played for three or four weeks at AFCON.”

Despite Aribo’s naturally relaxed demeanour, adopting a ‘never too high, never too low’ approach to matters on and off the pitch, he couldn’t help but gain a boost from his manager’s comments.

“Of course it's a good feeling, you want to hear that your manager believes in you. I think that's the most important thing, that he's got the full belief in you, it gives you the confidence to go out there and express yourself and be free.

“We've always had a good relationship. Anyone that's not playing is going to be frustrated, but there's ways of going about it and I'm not a person that's going to go the negative route.”

Despite suffering heartbreak at the final hurdle with his country in the Ivory Coast, Aribo’s season hasn’t been dented too much, by his own admission.

“I was just getting back into the team at the time [of the tournament] but it was an honour for me to go and represent my country, so it was one that I had to do.

“Coming back, it was just like, 'OK, I'm ready to go' – I had the taste of it from before I left, so I just wanted to come back and hit the ground running again.

Aribo returned to Saints reinvigorated for the run-in.

“For me, it's about leaving a legacy, playing well and winning games. Every game I play, I want to win. I think I've got that born winner in me.

“It's so frustrating when I don't win so I know how much it means to me. Every single tournament, every single game I play, I want to win.”

That ‘born winner’ mentality has seen Aribo feature in several high-profile games in his career, from the League One play-offs with Charlton Athletic to a Europa League final with Rangers, before his most recent AFCON final with Nigeria.

When quizzed on the comparison between the week-in, week-out relentlessness of the Sky Bet Championship to the high-pressure one-off matches he’s starred in, Aribo preferred to see the benefits of both.

“I think the intensity [of the Championship] is what makes you ready for the big steps, it is so intense and it's just about being ready when that time comes, when that opportunity comes.

“Big games? Someone's got to stand up and be counted for. It's not about hiding and not expressing yourself, or ultimately you'll be the one that's frustrated when the game ends because you feel like you didn't express yourself.”

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With more twists, turns and high-stakes matches to come as the post-season play-offs loom, Aribo seems locked in and ready to take on whatever is thrown his way.

“Focus on the now – it's just about being in the zone,” he explained, speaking from experience of his own promotion pushes, cup conquests and title triumphs. “You can't be looking forward, you can't be looking backwards.

“You can't change the past, you can't change the future right now, so it's just about now.”

Aribo clearly isn’t looking too far ahead, but if Saints can clear the remaining hurdles in front of them, he might just strike ‘gold’ once more.

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