Plucked from obscurity in January 2013, Kevin Mbabu was signed from Swiss club Servette as a 17-year-old as part of Newcastle’s former policy of recruiting young foreign talent. The dreadlocked defender had only made a single appearance for his first club before completing a successful trial on Tyneside, impressing the first-team coaching staff with his tenacity in the tackle and determination to become a Premier League player, earning him a three-and-a-half year deal.
Mbabu has somewhat flown under the radar during his two-and-a-half year stint at the club, being tarnished with the same brush as the likes of Gael Bigirimana, Curtis Good, and Haris Vuckic, who have all been deemed as surplus to first team requirements, failing to cement a place in the first team, resulting in numerous loan spells. This was something that Mbabu fell victim to, being loaned out to Scottish Championship outfit Glasgow Rangers FC last season where he failed to make a single appearance.
His place among the ‘Rangers Five’, as they became infamously known due to their lack of appearances, was the first that many fans had heard of Mbabu. However, that may be different now considering the 20-year-old’s excellent display against Chelsea last weekend.
His Premier League debut was one of the most impressive in recent times, especially since there had been very little indication that a breakthrough into the first team was imminent. Obviously, Mbabu has been working hard during pre-season, ensuring his fitness levels are up to Premier League standard, and combined with his determination and will to win, allowed him to put in an excellent deputy left-back display, quelling the threat of Eden Hazard and Pedro, some of the world’s hottest wingers.
It must have been a rather surreal experience for Kevin Mbabu coming up against the formidable Pedro, an experienced Champions League and World Cup Winner. Despite only having accumulated fewer than 90 minutes professional playing time under his belt, Mbabu was arguably the best player on the pitch given the circumstances and pressures he was under. His energetic performance did not falter and his tenacious and diligent work to prevent Chelsea having a field-day down the right-flank did not go unnoticed.
Mbabu will be extremely grateful to boss Steve McClaren for handing him his Premier League debut, but his manager may well be even more delighted with him, along with his team-mates, including Tim Krul who lauded the young Swiss defender’s solid showing to nufc.tv after the match. To slot into an unfamiliar position after only having played 45 minutes of first team football and stop the threat of Hazard and Pedro, is something quite remarkable, earning Mbabu a place in BBC Pundit Garth Crooks’ Premier League Team of the Week.
However, his current attitude and level of commitment must be upheld if he is to stake a serious claim to a starting position in the first team, along with staying fit and injury-free to prolong his time in the senior setup. Like many players at Newcastle United, Kevin Mbabu’s contract expires at the end of the 2015-16 season, therefore it is paramount that he gets more game-time to prove why he deserves a contract renewal, and performances like his Premier League debut will do his claim no harm at all.
His desire to play and wear the black and white shirt is something Newcastle fans haven’t seen for a long time, with the Swiss U19 international making no fewer than nine tackles during the 90 minutes against Chelsea, more than any other player on the pitch.
It would be foolish to get carried away and expect a player with just three senior appearances to his name to be the perfect player that United need in defence. After all, Mbabu usually plies his trade as a centre-back, but made his debut against Sheffield Wednesday as a right-back and his Premier League debut as a left-back, showing not only that he is versatile, but that McClaren sees him, rightfully so, as a utility player at the present time.
Over the course of the next few matches it’s possible that more displays of similar tenacity and determination will be rewarded with more and more game time, but the right thing to do is not expect too much of a player who is certainly one for the future if he is capable of replicating his high performance standards.