In 2006 John Obi Mikel moved to Chelsea. The transfer of the then 19-year-old Nigerian was the end of a bitter transfer dispute between the Blues and Manchester United that made waves.
Usually, player introductions at a press conference are just the final act of a transfer. If those involved take a seat on the podium, the contracts have long been signed. In retrospect, a press conference organized by Manchester United in April 2005 that did not even take place in Manchester appears all the more memorable.
It was John Obi Mikel, who at the time held up the Red Devils jersey with his name and jersey number 21 on the premises of his employer at the time, Lyn Oslo FC, while he was still wearing a Lyn Oslo shirt. The result was a bizarre photo that ultimately only represents the tip of the iceberg in what is possibly the biggest mud battle in Premier League history.
It all started in 2003 when Mikel caught the attention of ManUnited, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barca scouts at the U17 World Cup in Finland with his dominant style of play in central midfield despite his lanky figure. Only the draw prevented Nigeria from making it into the quarter-finals, but for Mikel personally the tournament was the perfect stepping stone.
Even during the finals, the first advisors sensed the big money if they placed this boy wonder at a top club. “There were agents who promised me everything. One of them came into my hotel room. I don’t remember which club he represented, but he had a suitcase with $ 70,000 in cash,” Mikel once recalled Sun return.
All he had to do was sign a contract for it – a huge temptation for a student. “Sign here and you will get a lot more of it,” added the consultant, according to Mikel. He asked those responsible for his association for advice and finally declined.
Mikel on trial at United: “Keane was my bodyguard”
Manchester United chose a different route. The Red Devils did not hesitate and invited the midfielder to England for a trial session shortly after the tournament. “I was allowed to train with the professionals. Roy Keane was my bodyguard,” says Mikel: “Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt always tried to kick me, but if Roy was around they couldn’t. He would have killed them.”
The coach in Manchester at the time was Sir Alex Ferguson. During his one-month trial training session, he called young Mikel into his office. Mikel didn’t know what to expect. But Ferguson quickly relieved him of the tension and revealed that Keane, Scholes and all other seasoned professionals would suggest that the youngster commit to the coach.
However, Mikel initially returned to Nigeria – regulations would only have allowed a change from the age of 18 anyway. “Sir Alex really liked me. He always made me feel good and encouraged me. Once he pointed to the cars of the stars and promised me, ‘If you work hard, you will drive one of these next year. You will for play this club and be rich, ‘”said Mikel.
He trained three times at United for several weeks, but although both sides were satisfied, it never became concrete after his last stay.
16-year-old Mikel causes a stir among the blues
Instead, Chelsea contacted the Nigerian and invited him to England for training. “I hadn’t heard from United so I said yes,” he said. John Shittu, whom Mikel met as a child, became his permanent advisor at the time. He also trained with the pros in London, but Chelsea could not have signed Mikel until he was 18, so the Blues wanted to park the player in South Africa for the time being.
Chelsea was working on a cooperation with Ajax Amsterdam at the time. The Dutch, on the other hand, have a subsidiary in Cape Town, Ajax Cape Town, so that they can train African talents on site. “Ajax and Chelsea were in talks and we already had an agreement with the Dutch,” said Cape Town boss John Comitis, explaining Mikel’s stay with the South Africans for several days after his trial at Chelsea FARPost.
It took 16-year-old Mikel less than 20 minutes in his first session to give trainer Gordon Igesund an opportunity to storm Comitis ‘office while he was still training and ask the CEO for a commitment: “I said to him,’ John “Take this player under contract immediately. Call him into your office and have him signed!” “Mikel was already the perfect midfielder due to his strong passing game paired with an outstanding overview, said Igesund. Even against adults he exuded an incredible calmness on the ball and often avoided critical situations just with his first ball contact.
Sir Alex Ferguson personally woos Mikel
Comitis promised his trainer to give it a try, but Mikel’s plan was different. “Things were arranged differently. We wanted to bring him to Europe, Ajax Cape Town was just one stop on his transit,” said his agent. That’s how it happened, because shortly afterwards the coveted talent moved to Lyn Oslo in Norway.
There Mikel signed a professional contract on his 18th birthday, and suddenly Ferguson, whom he had heard nothing from after his time in Manchester, flew to Norway to talk to him. “It was so confusing. I thought I had something going on with Chelsea, but then United got in touch and said that I was still being watched and that Sir Alex would come to visit me,” said Mikel der Sun.
Ferguson told the youngster that he didn’t want to lose him a second time. According to their own statement, the Red Devils offered Mikel almost 1.7 million euros for three years. After consulting with his father, Mikel signed an agreement – and United did not hesitate for a second to call that same press conference in Oslo’s media rooms.
TV report: Mikel was kidnapped!
“Chelsea saw the pictures on TV and those responsible freaked out,” said Mikel, who only found out a few days later that the Blues had a gentlemen’s agreement with Lyn Oslo not to sell the top talent to another club without consulting them the Londoners really wanted the player and, according to later statements, already paid for his stay at Ajax Cape Town.
Friends called Mikel, who was in a mess, and asked what had happened. His advisor Shittu came to Norway for face-to-face meetings. “The thought occurred to me that I might have been manipulated. The situation was very tough for me, I was still so young,” recalled Mikel.
Shortly afterwards he flew to London with his agent on a secret mission – the situation was bizarre. “I thought, ‘I just signed with United and now I’m going to Chelsea.”
Reports made the rounds on Norwegian television that Mikel had even been kidnapped. Police opened an investigation after the rumors were sparked by a Lyn officer. United, in the person of assistant director Carlos Queiroz, also publicly expressed concerns about Mikel’s disappearance.
Secret meeting at Mourinho
Chelsea’s officials meanwhile hid Mikel in a house in London to take him out of the line of fire and work in the background to solve the case. He faced the press nine days later, saying he had been pressured to sign with United in the absence of his agent and that he would see his future at Chelsea. The bosses of Lyn and United went wild and a complaint against Chelsea and the agent was filed with FIFA – without success.
In London, Mikel finally met with Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho. “It was a secret meeting. Roman Abramovich [Klubeigentümer; d. Red] organized six cars to take me there. It was like a military operation. It started in a car and the drivers were in contact with each other. All of a sudden I had to get out of the car and get into another one, “he revealed.
When he got to Mourinho, the Portuguese made it clear to him that the club really wanted him. “You will play for me and I will make you who you want to be,” he promised young Mikel. Soothing words in a phase of uncertainty.
Compensation to United higher than transfer fee
But United did not want to give up, continued to see themselves in the right. Ferguson said at the time of the “disgusting way that Mikel and his family were treated and harassed.” I doubt Mikel doesn’t want to join Manchester United. I assume he was forced to say that, “said the coaching legend.
FIFA ordered Mikel to return to Lyn until it was decided whether the signed contract with United was valid. At that time, FC Barcelona suddenly sensed their chance and would allegedly have signed Mikel if both a move to Chelsea and ManUnited had been prohibited.
Mikel’s first choice, however, has been the blues at least since the conversation with Mourinho. So the Londoners tried to find a solution before a possible FIFA verdict. It was almost ten months before an agreement was reached with United and Lyn. Chelsea transferred 4.5 million euros as a transfer to Norway, 13.5 million euros were paid as compensation to the rival – and over a year after his presentation as a Red Devils player, Mikel was officially a member of the Chelsea Football Club.
Shortly afterwards he received his work permit in England and was on the field in the Premier League from the 2006/07 season. The 89-time national player wore the blue jersey for a total of eleven years, winning two championships and seven national cups, as well as the Champions League and the Europa League.
Ferguson’s reaction to his rejection, however, will not be forgotten for a lifetime. “He liked me, but you could see how angry and disappointed he was,” revealed Mikel. When they met at Old Trafford, the two shook hands, he hadn’t completely given up on his dream player at the time. “One day you will play for me,” Mikel remembered the Scot’s words. However, he should not be right.