Afobe hits comeback trail on the ground where it all began

Benik Afobe sets off on a run.
Benik Afobe sets off on a run.
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Benik Afobe knows all about Yorkshire derbies at Hillsborough – he made his professional debut in one for Huddersfield Town against Sheffield Wednesday.

That was over three years ago as a raw 17-year-old, who had been drafted in on loan by the Terriers after scoring prolifically in Arsenal’s youth teams.

He signed from the Gunners on the morning of November 2, 2010, before coming on as a second-half substitute to help inflict a 2-0 defeat on Wednesday.

Today, the 20-year-old England Under-21 striker will line up in the blue and white stripes of the Owls against neighbours Barnsley hoping to put a miserable 2013 firmly behind him.

He was sidelined for over seven months with a cruciate knee ligament injury while on loan at Millwall in March last year, and only returned to playing football in October.

But five goals in seven reserve games – including the winner for Arsenal against Chelsea on Monday night – have proven his fitness and now he hopes to fill the big boots left by the departed Connor Wickham.

The on-loan Sunderland striker – who netted eight goals in 11 games for the Owls until his recall earlier this week – recommended Wednesday to his good friend Afobe, who is determined to pay back the favour.

“I first heard about Wednesday’s interest on Monday, just before Arsenal’s Under-21 game with Chelsea,” said Afobe, who scored eight goals in 35 appearances for Town in 2010-11. “Terry Burton came up and said Wednesday were interested in me.

“Stuart Gray came to see me that night and afterwards I got a phone call saying he wanted to take me on loan until the end of the season.

“It was a hard game, which went to extra-time. There were a lot of legs ‘going’ – it was the first game I had played for more than 90 minutes in two years – so we were all tired, but I ended up getting the winning goal.

“Terry thought it would be a good move for me, Wednesday play good football.

“It’s been difficult this season. I have been injured and only been playing for a few months. This is the right step for me, to get first-team football again and, hopefully, score a few goals again and help them up the table.”

One positive from Afobe’s spell out injured is the striker – who has a long-term Gunners contract and highly-rated by Arsene Wenger – has not played in the FA Cup this season, so can play for the Owls in next week’s fifth-round tie against Charlton.

“I am not cup-tied, I haven’t played in the FA Cup for Arsenal, so, hopefully, we can go on a good run,” he said.

“The team has got good form at the moment, nine games unbeaten, and, hopefully, we can carry that on.

“The Championship is a lot different to the Premier League. Obviously, I haven’t really played in the Premier League but have been at Arsenal and played with great players like (Mesut) Ozil. In the Premier League, normally the top 10 usually win their games, but in the Championship anyone can beat anyone on their day.”

Afobe could not have asked for a bigger game to make his Owls debut, against a Barnsley side who are also scrapping against relegation from the Championship.

A home win today could put Gray’s side nine points in front of second-from-bottom Barnsley, but a defeat could see them end the day avoiding the bottom three on goal difference.

“It’s going to be a very good game, the atmosphere will be good,” predicted Afobe.

“I feel ready. I have played seven games for the reserves, I know it’s not the same as the Championship but I have scored in five of those games.

“I have played in the Championship before, so I know what it’s all about. I am quicker and stronger now, so think I will be ready from the start.

“My first professional debut was here, for Huddersfield, and we won 2-0 at Hillsborough. I came on for the 25 minutes.

“It was a big game, I only came in the morning, so hadn’t trained with the Town players or anything. I remember watching the game and thinking ‘wow, this is very different to youth team football’. I went from the Under-18s, not playing reserves, straight into League One football.

“I have got a contract at Arsenal. It’s been difficult, they are doing so well and I have just come back from injury.

“That’s all behind me now, I feel sharp and fit. I have had my fair share of reserve team games and am now ready for the first team.”

Dropping down the leagues to gain first-team football is nothing new, Owls head coach Gray did it in the Eighties, swapping Nottingham Forest for today’s visitors Barnsley to get first-team football.

He went on to play over 100 games in a four-year playing spell at Oakwell, before earning a move to Aston Villa and a return to top-flight football.

“I have fantastic memories of Barnsley,” said Gray, himself a Yorkshireman, having been born in the coastal town of Withernsea.

“I think it was Norman Hunter that signed me, and I worked under Allan Clarke and got in 100-odd games. I started off at Nottingham Forest and took a step backwards to get my career going.

“It then allowed me to get a move to Aston Villa, and you sometimes have to take a step backwards to move forward in your career.

“It’s a good friendly club, but changed a lot since I was there with the Academy facilities they have now. There’s some good people at Oakwell, still some of the same faces from when I played there.”

Gray, obviously, wants a Wednesday win and survival this season but he also hopes Barnsley can repeat last season’s ‘Great Escape’ and stay in the Championship.

“I would like to see Barnsley stay up, I want as many Yorkshire derby games as possible for next season,” he said.