Teenage striker determined to reap the rewards of Ralph Hasenhüttl's continued faith in Saints' young guns on the eve of the new season...
As Ralph Hasenhüttl prepares to lead Southampton into a new season for the first time, there is excitement coursing through the club.
From the supporters, who so quickly took the Austrian to their hearts, to the players, reenergised by the clear philosophy mapped out by the boss on day one back in December.
Hasenhüttl demands a lot from others, by his own admission, but is quick to praise those who deserve it and is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement.
On countless occasions, he has reiterated what his Southampton team should look like. Playing with intensity. Pressing. Young. Dynamic. Enthusiastic. Hungry. Fast. Passionate. The order may change, but the buzzwords don’t.
Few players tick as many of these boxes as Michael Obafemi.
Hasenhüttl handed out four first-team debuts to Academy graduates in his first month in charge, despite the high-pressure stakes he inherited, with Saints fighting for their Premier League existence.
Obafemi wasn’t one of them, having already featured under Mauricio Pellegrino and Mark Hughes in a stop-start beginning to his senior career, but Hasenhüttl instantly took a shine to the teenager.
The Irish international became Saints’ youngest-ever Premier League goalscorer in his first appearance under the new boss, three days before Christmas and just 169 days since turning 18.
Fast-forward two injuries and only one game in between, Obafemi has wiped the slate clean ahead of the new season.
Featuring for at least 45 minutes against SCR Altach, Preston North End and Feyenoord, he was in Saints’ top ten for pre-season minutes played before the weekend.
Will Smallbone and Jake Vokins, yet to represent the first team in competitive action, were both in the top three.
“It’s clear that he likes young players and that’s part of what Southampton is all about,” says Obafemi, discussing the manager’s influence.
“You see young players at other clubs get forgotten or sent out on loan, but here you have a chance.
“He knows how to get the best out of me. He’s happy to tell me how to improve or show me how he wants me to play, but he also praises me.
“That’s important because you need confidence as a striker. I’m obviously coming back from two injuries, so it helps that the manager talks to me and gives me advice.”
It’s strange to think Obafemi has played only 45 minutes of competitive football under Hasenhüttl, who likes the youngster’s fearless approach.
michael obafemihe's happy to tell me how to improve or show me how he wants me to play, but he also praises me. that's important because you need confidence as a striker.
on his relationship with ralph hasenhüttl
Having only turned 19 in July, the front man, born in Dublin and raised in London, is not short on confidence – immediately making an impression on not just his boss, but his teammates too, who soon embraced his effervescent personality.
But the familiar grin on his face gives way when the conversation turns to the injuries that robbed him of so much game time last season.
“It was difficult to take,” he recalls. “I scored my first goal as the youngest player ever to score for Southampton (in the Premier League) and then I get a bad injury.
“It was a huge disappointment for me, and to have two injuries in quick succession made it even worse, but I’ve learned how to look after my body now, so I’ve tried to see it as a positive.
“I’m thankful to the medical team who have looked after me and got me back fit. I’m definitely ready to go now, but I also know how to look after myself better.”
Initially sidelined for two months after his big moment sealed victory at Huddersfield, Obafemi returned for only 20 minutes against Arsenal, as the substitute was substituted and his season cut short in February.
“The second injury was worse, in many ways,” he explains. “I’d worked so hard to get back and then an even longer injury came.
“I thought I did well during that period, because it’s easy to get yourself down, but I kept fit and on top of it.
“I’m really thankful for all the support I got, because as a young player you don’t necessarily know how to deal with injuries mentally.
“You can get really down, but I think I stayed strong and just kept working at it. I want this season to be a big one for me and for the club.
“Now I can see it as a positive, but I wouldn’t have said that before. I guess you could say it was a blessing in disguise because I’ve learned about my body.”
Standing only 5ft 7in tall but broad shouldered, like an Olympic sprinter, Obafemi’s body requires special treatment to avoid breaking down, such is his explosive speed from a standing start.
“As the manager has said, I really have to manage by back and my hamstrings, so I do all the exercises and stretches I need to before training now,” he says.
“My mindset has changed a bit because I can appreciate being able to train everyday now.
“It’s hard watching teammates train and being stuck in the gym, but I think in the long run I will be a better player for it.”
The glint in his eye returns as Obafemi counts down to the season opener at Burnley, and his fingers are crossed for a place in the matchday squad.
“I’m back fit now and raring to go for the new season,” he continues. “I’m probably more excited than anyone else because I haven’t been able to play football in so long.
michael obafemiit's a positive dressing room at the moment. we feel like we can be a top-ten side again and are capable of showing that.
“I want to stay fit, firstly. Like I said, I have to pay a lot of attention to my body to keep it in good condition.
“Beyond that, I want to play as many games as possible and contribute to the team.
“Obviously, I want to score goals and get assists because I’ve only had that feeling once, and I want to have it again.
“I hope this is going to set me up for a good season. For the team as well, we’re all working hard together and now there’s more quality in depth than in previous years.
“It’s a positive dressing room at the moment. We feel like we can be a top-ten side again and are capable of showing that.
“We’ve looked really sharp in the four games we’ve played and everyone feels that way. We’re all focused and want to do well for the club.”
Obafemi’s infectious enthusiasm off the pitch is reflected in the way he plays: direct, energetic, always on the move.
Hasenhüttl’s guidance will help fine tune his talents, while Nathan Redmond, Saints’ Player of the Year who has taken the striker under his wing, has publicly encouraged his teammate to “stay naïve”.
Obafemi vows not to change anytime soon, though surrounding himself with elite athletes has already improved his professionalism.
“It’s a man’s game, so you can’t behave like a kid, even if I am only 19. I’ve learned to take things on the chin a bit,” he adds.
“I was a bit wild before – I still am sometimes. I still have that playful side to me, but I’m more determined. I’m learning what it takes to stay around the first team.
“The club has stuck by me through these injuries so I need to repay that. I think I’ve calmed down a bit but I can’t lose all my personality – that’s what makes me who I am.
“I definitely feel more prepared going into this season than any other previously. It’s my first full pre-season with the first team and it’s been hard work.
“We’ve had double sessions – thankfully not triple sessions yet, but there’s still time... I’m not giving any ideas for triple sessions by the way!
“I’ve got my head down and worked hard because I want to prove that I deserve to be here.
“There’s really good competition for places in the team now and I have to show that the manager can trust me.
“I’m still very young and learning a lot, but I also think I could be a good option this season.”