It was around the end of the 2000s that keen-eyed Tottenham fans began to realise something special was happening at Spurs Lodge. While the senior team were beginning to revive their fortunes under Harry Redknapp, behind the scenes Spurs were quietly nurturing one of the most promising generations of academy footballers the club had seen in many years.
When you talked to the sort of people who had their ear to the ground and tended to know about these things, the same names kept cropping up. Watch out for Ryan Mason, plays just off the striker, scores for fun. Danny Rose, left winger from Leeds, quick as anything. Andros Townsend, another left-footed winger, tidy player, hell of a shot on him. And there’s a striker in the under-18s called Harry Kane who may just turn out to be something. “The most talented and exciting group of players I have worked with,” said John McDermott, the then academy coach who is now the FA’s technical director.
But if you were to ask regular followers of the Spurs youth sides in about 2008 or 2009 which of their homegrown strikers would end up playing for England, the most popular answer would not have been Kane but a bustling, powerful forward called Jon Obika. The top scorer in the academy, winner of the fans’ award for best young player, an England under-19 international and already on the fringes of the first team: yes, pretty much everyone agreed that Obika was a star in the making. All he needed was a chance.
Obika is now 31. It’s fair to say he didn’t become a star, at least not on the level many at White Hart Lane predicted. He has had a perfectly serviceable career, going from Charlton and Brighton in the Championship to Swindon and Oxford in League One to his current club, Morecambe, via a successful stint in Scotland with St Mirren. But he never did get that chance at Tottenham. At least, not until now.
From the moment Morecambe’s name was plucked from the metaphorical hat to face Spurs in the FA Cup third round, Obika has had this Sunday ringed in his diary. He only joined the League One side in the summer and has spent most of the season recovering from a serious hamstring injury. But now he can look forward to a reunion with the club he joined at the age of 10, and where he has only happy memories, even if there is still a note of wistfulness in there, a hint of what-if. “I would have loved some opportunity to showcase my talent,” he admits.
Those were heady times to be a young player at White Hart Lane. Redknapp had just taken Tottenham into the Champions League for the first time, spirits were high and Obika was testing himself against world-class players on a daily basis: Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart. “I can’t even remember Modric losing the ball in training,” he remembers. “He set the standard: this is where we have to get to. You had to raise your level.”
Towards the end of the 2008-09 season he made his first and last start for the club, a Uefa Cup game against a Shakhtar Donetsk side featuring Willian and Fernandinho. He played well too, but these were hardly the most auspicious times for a young English striker to break through. The transfer budget was plentiful, standards were rising sharply and for all his personal skills Redknapp was the sort of coach who preferred to work with the finished article. Peter Crouch arrived in the summer of 2009 to supplement Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane and Roman Pavlyuchenko. Emmanuel Adebayor would follow in 2011.
Meanwhile Obika found himself on the inevitable treadmill of dead-end loan moves: Yeovil, Millwall, Crystal Palace, Peterborough, 11 separate spells in the space of five seasons. Each time he would return to find himself a little further away from the centre of things, his path to the first team blocked by fresh bodies. Even so he wishes now he had been a little braver, had a little more confidence in himself, made himself unignorable.
“I’m probably my biggest critic,” he says. “There’s always things I could have done better. Whether it’s asking for those opportunities or proving it on a consistent basis. Even though I was scoring a lot in the youth team, when you train with the first team you have to be consistent every day. You don’t get too many chances and you have to take them.”
So in 2014, just as Tottenham were hiring a forward-thinking young coach called Mauricio Pochettino, the 23-year-old Obika left for Swindon Town. “As a young player you just want to play games,” he says. “When I left to go to Swindon I thought: ‘Should I have gone on loan that many times?’ But you just have to trust the process.”
And after almost 250 games for Swindon, Oxford, St Mirren and Morecambe as a robust, physical striker, equally adept at running the channels or holding the ball up, he can hardly claim football has not been good to him. “Jon’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met in football,” says his manager, Stephen Robinson, himself a former Tottenham academy prospect back in the 1990s.
“He got injured in his first pre-season game for us, only made his debut three weeks ago and scored on Saturday [in a thrilling 4-3 win over Doncaster]. I’ve never seen a boy work so hard off the pitch to get fit. It’s nice to see one of the good guys back, and this will be a brilliant occasion for him.”
Plenty has changed at Tottenham in the eight years since Obika left, but a few things have not. Mason, now a first-team coach, remains a close friend. Some of the medical team and academy staff have stayed in touch.
And so Obika returns to Tottenham without bitterness, but perhaps with a point to prove. For all the years he spent there, the work he put in, he never really managed to leave his mark at his boyhood club. Scoring a goal at their new stadium to put them out of the FA Cup? That, you feel, would do the trick nicely.