Obafemi Martins arrived at Newcastle United a bright young forward, an occasional star from Italian giants Internazionale, he arrived at Rubin Kazan jaded, and with a point to prove, and now, at Levante, threatening to become the forgotten man of Nigerian football. Can this be a tangible opportunity for this super eagle to re-find his wings?
The first time I saw Obafemi Martins in the flesh was May 2009, an optimistic early summer evening in the North East of England, a local derby between Newcastle and Middlesbrough, at the cathedral of St. James’ Park. At the time, both clubs were swamped in the mire of a relegation battle, and with the scores tied at 1-1, and the pair equally needing the three points, Magpies boss Alan Shearer beckoned over to the substitutes behind him. A change was needed.
Off was hauled Michael Owen, stumbling limply towards the SJP exit door, and on strode Obafemi Martins, a substitution which changed the complexion of the evening both on the pitch and in the tribunes. Some said it took Martins only 55 seconds to make his contribution, others even less; the travelling Middlesbrough fans covered their eyes as what looked like a lucky slip and a scruffy shot managed to beat Brad Jones. The home fans weren’t interested, Martins was electric, the pace with there, the power was unquestionable, and that evening, the fox in the box, the hotshot forward, the instant impact. The Magpies on their way to a crucial home win, consigning their local rivals to a near-inevitable descent.
Sadly, the striker’s efforts couldn’t save the Sleeping Giants of the Tyne, and victory over Boro merely afforded a brief stay of execution. Some weeks later, Newcastle joined them in the second tier, the ugly nadir of the club’s recent history. Something struck me that evening, amidst the euphoria of relief, amidst the delirious hoards of Newcastle fans dreaming of sanctuary and celebrating like the crew of the Andrea Gail before the shadow of that final wave engulfed them in horrific reality; I wasn’t the only one who spotted it, noted the subdued reaction of the man in the middle, the man so famed for his exuberant somersaulting celebration merely walking towards the fans and offering a slightly embarrassed clenched fist to sate them.
It was perhaps perceptible back in 2009 that the striker’s spark wasn’t what it had been, and that something about this electric young forward had dulled. Maybe it was the plight of relegation with Newcastle, maybe it was the politicking and animosity that surrounded the club at that time, maybe it was just a young man with a taste for new horizons. Either way, it’s hard to suggest that things have ever been as promising for Oba since that May evening, and the poacher’s finish, that for a day or two at least, gave those on Tyneside hope.
A month or so later, he had left Newcastle. After initially suggesting that he would be keen to stick around and help the club in the Championship, then German champions Wolfsburg made an offer of £9 million to bring the coveted frontman to Lower Saxony. Despite the promise of a new frontier, and of the chance to test himself in the Champions League, Martins departed only a year later.
After never quite managing to unseat the club’s legendary strike partnership of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, and with the newly appointed Steve McClaren looking to reshuffle the deck, Martins moved to Rubin Kazan, once again by a manager looking to add an extra dimension to domestic champions. On arriving in Russia, the talk was of rejuvenation, of a striker ready to put recent disappointments behind him, and once more demonstrate the capabilities that had made his a household name.
Despite a Russian cup win, Martins’s stint in Russia was disappointing. Following the birth of his child, the striker expressed his desire to return to England and enjoy a closer proximity to his family. His wish was granted, and Birmingham came calling, fending off other suitors to seal a 6 month loan deal on deadline day in January 2011. Unfortunately, the Yoruba frontman failed to leave any significant impact in the second city. A League Cup final winning goal against Arsenal at Wembley masked an ineffective and disappointing spell. A shin injury curtailed his latest stint in England, and the offer of purchase was not taken up by Alex McLeish; a sad indictment of Martins’s decline.
Returning to Russia in the summer of 2011, the last year of Obafemi’s career has produced little of note. His brother’s tragic passing from a heart attack in that same summer can’t have helped but have left an impact, and without an international call up in recent memory, Martins, and his enviable scoring record for Nigeria, are threatening to be lost in the distant mists of time. Martins had hoped that his Birmingham sojourn would reinsert him into the minds and consciousness of Super Eagles selectors, but it hasn’t been the case. The likes of Victor Moses, Emmanuel Emenike, and Ideye Brown have emerged as viable, competent options for the national side, while Martins’s exile continues.
The Albion attempted to obtain the forward’s signature this summer, their loan offer being rejected before Levante finally stepped in after Kazan chiefs terminated Martins’s contract. It was a telling end to a dismal few years for the forward, and he will be hoping that his recent poor form and his catalogue of injury woes are over – here is a man who will surely be identifying a starring role for Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup as a realistic option, and Levante may well be the place to demonstrate his capabilities. Reports suggest that he has taken a large cut on his reported £40,000 a week salary at Kazan, and the older, more mature Martins shouldn’t be blighted by the financial woes that have followed him in the past.
I last saw Martins in October of last year, when he appeared for Kazan against Tottenham as a second half substitute. A few fans will have cowered when he appeared – many still remember the 20 yard belter he scored against Spurs in January 2007 – but few marvelled at his performance that night, a muted half hour where he was all but silenced by Younes Kaboul.
Will Martins ever be capable of changing a game’s complexion again? Only time will tell, but Levante and Nigeria fans will certainly have their fingers crossed.