By Darren Tinmouth, Claret & Blue Pixels blog (@Dazzla84_SSFC)
The name Tunde Owolabi may be a bit alien to fans in the SPFL, if anything, many may wonder why one of the Premier Division are delving into the Northern Premier League, England’s seventh tier, for players as they attempt to once again stave off relegation.
However when one does some research and speak to NPL fans about this player, the superlatives far outweigh the criticisms as in the last two seasons, Owolabi has experienced nothing but success and has won admirers from fans across the North of England.
He arrived in the NPL as a comparative unknown in the newly created NPL Division 1 West with perennial strugglers Radcliffe Borough in the summer of 2018. The nature of the eighth tier division though allowed Owolabi to play to his strengths as a forward, showing excellent skill and physical attributes.
His presence played a big part in Radcliffe’s resurgence in a season that ended with an excellent runners-up spot (their best league finish in 9 years) and just 7 points behind champions Atherton Colleries. This resurgence continued in the playoffs where promotion back to the NPL Premier Division was achieved thanks to a 2-1 win over Leek in the final.
The success didn’t stop there for Tunde, he was the club’s top scorer with 21 goals and was voted as the division’s player of the year by supporters. All this got the attention of FC United of Manchester manager Neil Reynolds who snapped up Owolabi and appeared to build a squad around him as he set about his massive rebuild after FC United’s relegation from National League North.
Over the past season, as a South Shields fan, I personally have only been able to watch him when we’ve been up against him and his FC United team but in those two games, he definitely left a huge impression not only on me but on other Shields fans and also across the league.
Its safe to say the new squad with Owolabi as the figurehead took a while to gel as FC United made a stuttering start to the league campaign. Home defeats to the likes of Scarborough, Hyde, and South Shields left them mired in mid-table early on.
Then Owolabi hit the biggest purple patch of his career with a 7-0 hammering of Buxton at the beginning of October where Owolabi scored four I feel was the turning point in both his and FC United’s season. Between then and the season’s curtailment, FCUM would lose just 3 league games as their charge, consistently topping the form table and this helped them up to second place and well placed to clinch an advantageous spot in the playoffs.
The best of Owolabi however I feel was seen in a defeat and whats-more in what turned out to be his last game in an FCUM shirt. The big top of the table clash away at South Shields just before the COVID-19 lockdown hit. Not only were my team the league leaders by 9 points at the time, but we also possessed the meanest defence in the league by a healthy margin.
In that game, he showed exactly why he has earned this move to Hamilton Accies in a performance that if the Hamilton scouts were at Mariners Park that day would have been like a child let loose in the pik’n’mix aisle at Woolworths.
He showed great tenacity, skill and physical presence against the league’s meanest defence to score a second half hat-trick, one of those goals being a wonderful solo effort running from the touchline and getting round four Shields defenders before sending an excellent first time right foot shot which wrongfooted the keeper into the bottom corner.
Yes FC United lost the game 5-3 but Owolabi was the star of the show, and he was applauded off by FC United and also the Shields fans, no doubt appreciative that he played a big part in a wonderful game of football which was a fantastic advert for the Northern Premier League.
He ended up as the Premier Division’s top scorer with 28, well clear of his nearest challengers (seasoned NPL campaigners like Diego DiGirolamo and James Walshaw) and he also walked off with his second supporters player of the year gong in successive seasons, this time bagging the Premier Division award. From this, he got a trial at Hamilton and the result of this is his transfer and potentially making his Hamilton debut this weekend against none other than Celtic.
Based on his achievements in the NPL and how he plays, I think he will be an excellent fit into the SPFL Premier Division. Will he be the main figurehead in the Accies attack? Only time will tell but I can safely say that if he continues improving now that he will be in a full time professional setup, the potential is definitely there.
Who knows, this could be the beginning of an exciting journey through the professional ranks for Tunde Owolabi, Will he end up like Jamie Vardy in building his career starting out in non-league? Again, only time will tell.