Curtis Obeng is a fine, developing full back who has frankly got a move to the place where his talent ought to be. I can’t help thinking that it’s a transfer which owes a lot to Wrexham’s change of management this season though. Dean Saunders deserves great praise for what he achieved at The Racecourse, but his handling of Obeng illustrates the one great failing he must address to fulfil his own potential.
In one sense Obeng is the greatest legacy Dean Saunders left us, having been picked up on a free and sold on for a fee only slightly lower than what we received from Liverpool for another rather tasty full back; Joey Jones. Yet in another sense he was Saunders’ greatest failure; specifically a failure of his man-management skills. Obeng’s progress is a graphic illustration of why Andy Morrell and Billy Barr have been able to take the squad they inherited from Saunders to a level their predecessor never achieved. They represent the sympathetic ear, the arm around the shoulder. Theirs is a more responsive style of management, and although Saunders appeared to have softened his approach in the last year or so of his time at The Racecourse, he remains in the memory primarily as an ego-driven leader.
His treatment of Obeng was the most striking example of this. Some people respond to having a critic constantly on their backs, challenging them to prove them wrong; others find that sort of regular criticism difficult to swallow. Judging by Obeng’s blossoming form since Saunders left, I suspect he fits more easily into the second category.
Obeng’s arrival from Manchester City was greeted with great fanfare – I clearly remember my excitement when I heard we’d signed a player with such an encouraging pedigree (I was walking up a hill in Lesbos at the time, which is NOT a euphemism!) He was essentially Saunders’ number one right back from the moment he arrived, but you never felt his grip on that status was firm. Saunders constantly moved to publicly undermine him, criticising him regularly in post-match press conferences.
In this respect, his treatment was very similar to that of Adrian Cieslewicz, another player who has flourished under Morrell. Coincidence? Morrell has afforded him a run in the side he never got in the previous two-and-a-bit seasons under Saunders (he’s started eighteen games under Morrell, having started only fourteen in over two seasons under Saunders!), and the young Pole has repaid him.
It feels to me as if Saunders, who bought the duo within twenty-nine days of each other, pigeon-holed the pair together as wet-behind-the-ears kids from Manchester City’s academy who needed to be constantly pushed to improve. Judging by his driven personality and own effort-reliant style of play, it might well have been the approach that inspired him, but Saunders perhaps needs to learn that all individuals are different and have to be treated accordingly to fully expolit the ability in his changing room.
It might seem odd, but my abiding memory of Obeng isn’t his fine performance against Brighton, which probably inspired the watching Brendan Rodgers to take the plunge and sign him. It isn’t one of his devastating runs up the wing, his hilarious first career goal, beautifully flapped at by the Tamworth keeper, the trademark looping throw onto Andy Morrell’s head which led to our opener at Bath last season, or some fine intervention in the box either. Instead, what sticks in my mind is one of the most remarkable things I’ve seen in thirty-four years of following Wrexham: Dean Saunders, at the end of a rain-soaked pre-season friendly at Vauxhall Motors, rushing onto the pitch at the final whistle and stopping Obeng from leaving the field with his team mates, then very publicly going through his positioning on the pitch for a good couple of minutes, in front of the crowd as we trudged out of the ground. Perhaps it was merely a highly insensitive piece of man-management by a passionate manager who had seen something he wished to address and, overwhelmed by enthusiasm, decided to do it immediately. I hope that’s what it was, but it looked like a very deliberate public humiliation to me. “You can’t defend, and this is how you do it!” appeared to be the message, and if that was the case, it ought to have been delivered in private.
I do accept that Saunders wasn’t totally wrong. Obeng did have lapses earlier in his Wrexham career, but what should you expect when you sign a raw teenager? The fact is that for the last three seasons we’ve had a defence, skilfully crafted by Saunders, which stands proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest rearguards this club has ever produced. Obeng has been a regular, crucial part of it; indeed, he is the only regular defensive thread running through those three campaigns. Seems to me he must have had some idea of what he was doing!
It might be argued that Wrexham will miss Obeng more than they would any other player in the squad. Not only could he defend, but he was a crucial component of our attacking gameplan, as 21 assists in 110 games suggests (see fig.1).
Furthermore, he contributed increasingly more assists as time went on, and stands equal with Jake Speight in second place of that particular category for Wrexham this season, behind only his full-back partner, Neil Ashton (see fig. 2). Appropriately, in his final Wrexham game, he was paid the ultimate compliment; Adie Britton, the cerebral manager of Bath City and a great tactical tinkerer, took the remarkable measure of man-marking a full-back when he put Paul Stonehouse, normally a progressive full-back himself, onto Obeng to attempt to halt his forward charges. The move was a partial success – Obeng was more becalmed than usual, but managed to score the first intentional goal of his career in an early foray before Stonehouse settled into the role. However, it was a recognition by a shrewd operator that Obeng’s surges on the outside often represented the point where Wrexham possession turned into a Wrexham attack.
Yet despite his effectiveness, there is still a sense that Obeng is a work in progress. He has made the right move to build on that potential. At Swansea, Obeng will find in Rodgers a manager more akin to Morrell than Saunders. That’s why I suspect we haven’t heard the last of him, and many more football fans will hear a lot more of him very soon.