When the Emirates FA Cup Third Round draw was made, there was only one team that Shrimps striker Jonathan Obika wanted to come up against.
Seconds after Faye White drew ball 40, the safe hands of David Seamen pulled out ball 48, meaning Morecambe would be travelling to the famous Tottenham Hotsput stadium to face Antonio Conte’s men, much to the elation of Shrimps fans, players and staff.
This fixture, however, means a little more to Obika, who spent his entire youth career in North London, his boyhood club. In just 13 short years, the now 31-year-old grew from an apprehensive schoolboy to a fully pledged professional footballer, made memories and friends to last a lifetime, and started the career of his dreams.
Despite having no real Sunday League experience, Obika admits he was handed the opportunity to join up with Tottenham Hotspur following a school visit to White Hart Lane, where his natural ability caught the eyes of the coaches.
“It was crazy because I remember I got scouted at school, myself and one of my friends back then, we got scouted,” he said.
“Normally, when we go to year five or year six, they take us to Tottenham Hotspur stadium, which was just across the road and a coach teaches us skills and what not, we got scouted through there.
“I never went to any Sunday League teams because my parents were more of the education route, so getting the opportunity there, I felt like I’ll probably have one chance to actually get through the door. It was very nerve-wracking at the start, I think maybe one or two weeks in, I just thought I’m here to stay and progress.
“I think that’s the only passion I had back then, it was just football, football. If I’m playing in school or when I returned home, I’m going out with my friends to the park to play football. I didn’t know how it’d come about, but it just felt like this is what I want to do. I lived five minutes from the stadium, so I used to walk to training as an 10, 11-year-old. That was my only focus back then.”
A self-proclaimed Spurs fan, with a former admiration for Manchester United due to the prolific partnership of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, the striker’s first visit to White Hart Lane came as an 11-year-old, an experience he’d never forget, and little did he know that he’d one day take to the famous Tottenham turf as a Spurs player.
Obika added: “I always supported Spurs, but I had two teams. Spurs and Man United because I always liked the Cole and Yorke partnership, but with Spurs because I used to hear the noise from home, I always wanted to go to games, so I always kept an eye on Spurs.
“It [his first game] was probably as an 11-year-old, you normally get two tickets, and it was myself and my dad, I can’t even remember the team I watched!
“I just remember, because it was so loud with the fans, it was like a different atmosphere, I felt like I found myself looking at the fans more at the game because it was just so loud, just seeing people singing, it was just like a proper atmosphere.”
Following years of hard work, Obika’s efforts paid off when, around his 18th birthday, he was offered his first professional contract under the watchful eye of Harry Redknapp, a day that he will never forget.
He continued: “I remember I’d just turned 18, and Harry Redknapp came probably a few months before that, and you always knew when he would watch our games. He’d be coming down to see the U17 games or U18 games, I always had a good relationship with Ryan Mason, so he used to assist me a lot and I used to score a lot, so I was always confident that the pro contract was coming, but without hearing it, you just never know.
“I remember John McDermott, who was my academy manager and Alex Inglethorpe, called me into the office and said ‘we need your parents here, we want to offer you a professional contract’ and they told me Harry Redknapp likes what he sees. It was just amazing because you don’t really know when it’s coming, but when it does come, it’s like a relief, you’ve made one step here.”
There was little time for celebration however, and in his own words, it was now time to knuckle down and work harder than ever before to make a real go at becoming a successful professional footballer.
In football, they say that attitude goes a long way, and the number of successful players from Obika’s youth group is testament to that very saying.
“Our whole youth team, like Andros Townsend, Ryan Mason, John Bostock, Ryan Fredericks at West Ham, Adam Smith at Bournemouth, I felt like everyone had that mindset where we have to knuckle down and it was testament to John McDermott, Alex Inglethorpe and Chris Ramsay, because our upbringing was quite disciplined.
“The focus was solely football, we didn’t really care about the other stuff that comes with it, it was just working on your craft. I felt like I had a good academy group to push each other.”
Thursday 28 November 2008 is a day that will live long in the memory of Jonathan Obika and his family. In what was a chilly winter’s evening in Holland, NEC Nijmegen hosted Spurs in the UEFA Cup. Not only did Redknapp’s come away with the win, but Obika, wearing number 80, made his professional senior debut for the club.
Things went from good to great when, for the first time, the Enfield-born man made his first senior start in front of the White Hart Lane faithful against Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Cup weeks later.
“I didn’t know I was starting at the beginning of the game, there was a few injuries so a lot of the youth team players trained that week and we were in the squad, so when Harry Redknapp read out my name, it was weird. I felt like I was nervous before the game, but as soon as he read out my name, I was more excited, thinking ‘wow, this is actually happening’.
“It felt like there was no time for nerves, maybe Harry Redknapp didn’t tell me beforehand because he knew I might be nervous thinking about it throughout the day. He told me and then the game is there.
“I think we needed to win the game but we drew 1-1, so we didn’t go through. Gareth Bale scored that game, I thought we did well, we had many chances, and they had a great team, I think Willian was playing that day. I just remember the scoreline 1-1, but the noise of the crowd, pushing us on for the second, it was great to look back on in the week, speaking to my teammates in the U18s.
“I was happy that there was a lot of youth team players on the bench, it felt like everyone had that memory. When we did go back in, we’re all talking about it, what they saw from the sidelines or on the pitch, it was just nice to be around that.”
After a memorable thirteen years at Spurs, including several stints out on loan, the difficult decision to leave the club was made with the viewpoint of progressing further as a player and playing more first team football.
“Every time I came back from loan spells, I always thought ‘this is the time to kick on, try and get games in the first team and be consistent there’, but I know every time I went on loan, I got another year older, it was 21, 22, 23, and I thought to myself ‘it’s time, they may not be seeing you as someone that’s going into the first team, you have to make a decision’.
“I felt at that point I was ready for, even though it was sad to leave, I was ready for it, I wanted first team football somewhere I could prove myself and eventually score goals in a league that matters instead of just being in the reserves. It was something I was ready for, but I always look at that time thinking it’s prepared me for my career for sure.”
Looking ahead, our number 14 is excited to face the club he grew up at, and that whilst it’ll be a sentimental trip on a personal level, the Shrimps will be fully focussed on the job at hand with the goal of producing a famous FA Cup upset.
“It [the draw] meant a lot because it’s where I started. I feel my whole childhood was there, it just felt it was football, football at Spurs. I have some great memories there, not only on the pitch, but off the pitch with some of the staff that are still there. Just to get that draw, I know it’s big for the club, big for the players, the staff, everyone associated, so it felt like it was something meant to be, and it’ll be good going back there.”
“We’re there to cause an upset, no-one really backs us, only our fans are really in support of us, thinking we can do something. We just have to do ourselves proud, as players you want to put yourselves up against the elite and know how you can fend against these people. It’s a great opportunity for the boys and I know that we’ll be organised, definitely the gaffer will get us organised as always and we’ll do ourselves proud, for sure.”
Eight years after leaving Tottenham Hotspur as a player, Jonathan Obika’s career has gone from strength to strength, and Sunday’s FA Cup Third Round fixture will be the first time he has come up against his former employers, and whilst his heart will be warm with the memories of the past, as soon as the famous Morecambe shirt is pulled over his head, there will only be one job in his mind.