Today the Fringe Focus series takes a look at Kevin Mbabu, the versatile Chêne-Bougeries born Swiss under 20’s International, who made his debut in a 2-2 draw versus reigning League Champions Chelsea 5-months-ago.
Kevin Mbabu joined Newcastle United in January 2013 following a successful trial having made his breakthrough with Servette, with whom he made his senior debut with in the Swiss Super League in September 2012. He has represented Switzerland at all youth levels up to the U-20’s, for whom he has 2 caps. He is 6 feet and half an inch tall, has a physical presence and does not get bullied off the ball. Kevin is in fact his middle name by the way. His first name is Melingo .
He was actually scouted by both Manchester United and Arsenal back in 2011, going as far as joining the Gunner’s youth side on trial for the Ferroli Cup in Italy. Needless to say that did not work out and thankfully so – because Arsenal’s loss in Newcastle’s gain. Mbabu actually started off as a defensive midfielder in his early teens with the ability to play in central defense – but is now mainly regarded as a right back, who is comfortable covering on the left or centrally if required. Due to the ongoing injury problems suffered by both Paul Dummett and Massaido Haidara, young Kevin (he is approaching 21-years-old this April) has been used pretty much exclusively as left back cover by the senior team this season.
Mbabu’s signing was part of an advertised wider effort by Newcastle United to bring the development squad to new heights – a drive to recruit some of the brightest up and coming talent from cross Europe. Around the time that this lad joined the club, the Toon had just failed with a £3m bid to bring a certain Florian Thauvin in from Bastia – who at the time was regarded as one of the very best prospects around. Other junior signings to come in within this time frame were the likes of Gael Bigirimana, Romain Amalfitano, Curtis Good, Mehdi Abeid and Massaido Haidara. As you can see, that recruitment drive, much like the senior side over the years – bore little success.
Mbabu enjoyed a growing reputation within the reserve set up, helping Peter Beardsley’s under 21’s to the summit of their league for a time. At the beginning of 2015 he was deemed ready for his first loan move in order to aid his development. He was shipped off to Scottish Division 1’s Rangers alongside 4 other Toon youngsters.The move appeared to be more of a distraction technique employed by Mike Ashley to convince ‘Gers fans that his power grab at their team could bring mutual benefits to both his clubs. Whether it was designed to actually benefit the players themselves is questionable and newly appointed manager Stuart McCall was not impressed with being handed a handful of either long term injured or unfit players from our reserves set up when they were trying to gain automatic promotion back to the promised land of the SPL. In Mbabu’s case, he was described as being unfit despite featuring in two U-20 games and training with the senior side during his time there. Maybe he was unfit or maybe McCall did not fancy him. Either way he came back at the end of the season with zero senior side experience to his name.
At the beginning of this season, Mbabu was earmarked for a short term stint at Gateshead, but instead chose to stay and made his debut in the League Cup loss to Sheffield Wednesday’s second string having replaced Daryl Janmaat at half time. A defensive crisis then struck prior to the Chelsea game a few days later and Kevin found himself playing left back for the full 90 minutes. Not only did he apply himself well, but he excelled. Mbabu successfully made 8 tackles that day, a figure not beaten by anybody in the league – even matching experienced midfield battler Lucas Leiva of Liverpool. He went on to feature for 53 minutes during the 6-1 stuffing received by Manchester City before going off injured. Unfortunately injuries have been a common feature in his time with us and if he is going to kick on and develop into the player that his potential indicates he can be – he will need to overcome these repeated niggles.
Either side of these niggles, Mbabu put in a decent shift against a very determined Bournemouth and then turned out against Watford in the Magpies’ recent FA Cup loss. If it were not for his injuries since his impressive league debut against Chelsea, I am certain the lad would have featured more often in the first team – perhaps relieving Rolando Aarons of the Mission Impossible he has faced recently – with the attack minded winger being deployed in an unfamiliar role at full back.
Mbabu’s contract runs down this summer and manager for now Steve McClaren has this to say to the Chronicle when asked if he’d like the young Swiss to stay;
“Yes, I like him. He has a good attitude, he’s a good athlete and he’s strong. He’s willing and wants to do the job. He is wholehearted and you can see he just wants to get up the field with the ball. It’s a shame (he picked up injury) because he did well, it was his first game back at Watford in the FA Cup.”
Clearly McClaren and his staff rate the lad but it is unknown if a new deal has yet been put forward. Rolando Aarons is in the same boat, but it is understood the club has an option to automatically extend his contract – so there is no rush to tie him down. Whether such a clause exists with Kevin Mbabu is unknown..
It’s hard to know just how good this lad can be. Whilst he is a solid physical presence, he has only won 60% of his headers so far and has made only one successful tackle out of 9 in his league games since his impressive turn against Chelsea. He is not the quickest either and has only succeeded with 25% of his take-on’s, a figure he will need to improve if he is to be an effective full back. His repeated injuries also raise doubts as to his long term suitability at this level – but if he can get injury free and have a run of games together in his preferred position, he might just prove that his Chelsea performance was not a one off, but a sign of the things to come.