A forgotten man under Jose Mourinho, John Obi Mikel is the toast of the town after a man of the match performance atCrystal Palace on Sunday. Will the Nigerian be stand-in bossGuus Hiddink’s secret weapon in recouping Chelsea’s place in the pecking order? Dan Levene takes a look…
A strange thing happened at Selhurst Park on Sunday lunchtime.
It wasn’t the capitulation of a Palace side that looked flooded-out by the elements; nor was it the long-awaited apparent return to form of a Chelsea team that had been short of its potential for almost all of 2015.
The strangest thing of all came from the group of Chelsea fans, resolutely standing in a corner of the ground, and singing the name of a cult hero – a man known to most just as ‘Mikel’.
More than a decade on from his controversial move from Lyn Oslo to Stamford Bridge, the quiet, always smiling, midfielder is a man who divides Chelsea opinion more than any other.
Many fans have little time for the 28-year-old, who plays a role at Chelsea that a sizeable section of the footballing world believes simply shouldn’t exist.
That role, seen in abundance at Selhurst Park, is to soak up the pressure and do the midfield dirty work – an unfashionable task, well away from the limelight, which allows others to move forward and grab the glory.
During 90 minutes where he barely put a foot wrong, his name was sung repeatedly – the first time most can recall that ever happening (aside from a few ironic chants of ‘he scores when he wants’ that followed the latter few of his five goals in more than 250 games for the Blues).
To see a whole Chelsea crowd united in admiration for Mikel was unusual, because so many fans do take issue with his presence at the club.
The complaint that he is basically stealing a living, by sitting on the bench for so much of his time while on a good wage, ignores the sacrifices he has made to be a squad player.
And the issue often raised about his lack of attacking flair also forgets that his defensive role is one that Chelsea created for him – he is a different player in a green shirt for Nigeria, where his role is far more attacking.
Those sacrifices, and a very chilled-out easy-going attitude, plus a strong dedication to training (check his abs on the Match of the Day footage from Selhurst Park – he looks like he does a couple of hundred crunches a day), are what have ingratiated him towards a long line of Chelsea bosses.
A very long line, actually: the reinstatement of Hiddink was the 10th change in management of his time at Stamford Bridge, and all those bosses have seen fit to play him.
They see a great pro, who has always done his best to fit in with those around him.
Going back to his teens, this was always part of the game for Mikel.
When he went to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2003, the Nigerian FA mistakenly registered the second name of John Michael Nchekwube Obinna as ‘Mikel’.
He liked it, and it stuck – though he was also aware that, in a competition being hosted in Finland, and at a time when Nigerian youth talent was being sought by Norwegian sides, a Scandinavian-sounding name would do his career chances no harm.
So, with Lyn in Norway, that ‘Mikel’ moniker became his identity, and the incorrect ordering of his shortened three-part name the accepted norm (and, in any case, as we learned this week – ‘John Obi Mikel’ scans better from the terraces than his actual name).
In his early years with Chelsea he forged a firm friendship with a fellow young African growing-up in London – Saloman Kalou.
Mikel jokingly told the press the pair were ‘like husband and wife’, and those who witnessed the petty arguments over who had restocked the fridge in their shared abode can testify to that.
The pair were to star in Chelsea’s greatest-ever triumph – the winning of the Champions League in Munich back in 2012, where Mikel was arguably the best player on the pitch, sticking firmly to his tactical brief.
In more recent years, Mikel’s desire to fit in has taken a more literal turn and he has recently been confirmed as a British citizen, passing his exams; and surely as a result he possesses a greater understanding than most footballers of the country’s constitutional history, via the Life In The UK test.
It was that move that Chelsea have to thank for his continued existence in the squad – for speculation linking him with a move to Besiktas either last summer or this month was largely scuppered by his desire to remain in the EU, and preferably the UK.
Now Mikel, the man who has seen off almost every boss of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, is back in vogue. He is, according to Hiddink, “ideal” for Chelsea’s present predicament.
And, should he continue in the same vein that has brought so many plaudits since Hiddink’s return to the club, there has to be a good chance we’ll be hearing lot more of his name sung in football grounds before the campaign is out.