WORDS WITH: JOHN MIKEL OBI
Earlier this month, in our 2-0 win at Derby County, John Mikel Obi played his 300th game for Chelsea, becoming only our fourth foreign player to reach that considerable landmark. By the game's conclusion, he had a goal, the captain's armband, and a place in the next round of the FA Cup. He speaks to the official Chelsea website about his time at the club so far, and his desire to keep winning trophies in the years to come…
Actions speak louder than words, so the saying goes. However, an analysis of John Mikel Obi's 300 Chelsea appearances is perhaps best illustrated by those who have worked closest with him during that time - his managers, team-mates and coaches. They have overseen his progress from the highly talented 18-year-old that arrived in west London in the summer of 2006, to the strong, tactically astute defensive midfielder whose best performances have often come when it's mattered most.
According to Jose Mourinho, Mikel is 'a genius in his position', to the extent it is 'a miracle if he loses the ball'. The Portuguese, who signed the Nigerian seven-and-a-half years ago and is now managing him again, is not alone when it comes to those who have sung Mikel's praises since he moved to west London.
Luiz Felipe Scolari said 'he belongs in the position'. Carlo Ancelotti likened Mikel's style to his own, a compliment not to be taken lightly considering the Italian's own glittering playing career. Ray Wilkins, a lieutenant of both Ancelotti's and Guus Hiddink's before that, and an exceptional former midfielder himself, hailed Mikel as a player who 'reads the game exceptionally well, is as strong as an ox and has a lovely range of passing'. Andre Villas-Boas admired his 'amazing mental toughness' when he played on despite the abduction of his father in Nigeria, and, following our epic run to the Champions League final in 2012, Roberto Di Matteo stressed the significance of the 'vital' role he played throughout the latter stages of that glorious European campaign, highlighting disciplined defensive performances against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Considering these endorsements, it is little surprise Mikel has reached 300 games in Chelsea blue, averaging almost exactly 40 appearances a season. Yet the rough diamond that signed in 2006 joined a midfield that already contained Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien, arguably the most fearsome in world football at that time, especially with Michael Ballack joining too. Asked to cast his mind back to those early days at the club, Mikel says it was a daunting but invaluable experience.
'Coming into a big club like Chelsea, as a young 18-year-old from Africa, it was a dream come true,' he reflects.
'I remember coming into the dressing room and I was shaking all through the first week. The players in there really helped me settle in - John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and the other African players that were there at the time.
'I looked at these guys every day and I learned a lot from them, how they act on and off the football pitch, which helped me develop and mature as a person. It was a growing up stage which I never had with any other team. I just jumped straight into this team so I had to learn that way.'
Mikel's learning curve was occasionally stunted by disciplinary problems, on and off the pitch, including four red cards in his first 18 months at the club. Looking back, he concedes he was at times 'naïve and stupid', but, as he puts it, 'it's all about growing up in the game, and I think over the years I've done that'. The evidence supports him, too - his last sending off was over six years ago, and for a man deployed in a highly competitive area of the pitch, he gets relatively few yellow cards now.
As the discussion turns to his style of play, the subject of Makelele comes up. The Frenchman was so imperious in that defensive midfield role he subsequently had the position named after him. No easy act to follow, then.
'I learned a lot from Maka, he was always helpful,' Mikel points out. 'I watched him play a lot because I knew that was the position Jose wanted me to play in. Everyone has their own style of play and I do play a bit differently to him because I know I can contribute more offensively, but at the same time I try to keep the shape of the team which is important.
'Of course I want to score but at the same time not all 11 players can score, you have people there to keep the shape of the team. If I'm playing with Frank he is always going forward. If both of us go it's a disaster, likewise with Rami, he's a box-to-box player. I have to make sure I sit, and if we keep a clean sheet and we win then I'm very happy.'
Lampard, so often fielded next to Mikel over the years, in either a three-man or a two-man central Chelsea midfield, is well-placed to judge the Nigerian's assets.
'It's very good playing alongside Obi,' he tells the official Chelsea website. 'He's a top holding midfield player, and for me personally being more attacking in my game it helps to play with someone who has discipline and moves the ball quickly, which Obi can do.
'He's one of those players that will not make headlines, but he's happy to go unrecognised in his work and he has a huge worth for the team when he plays.'
That worth has helped us to domestic and European triumphs in recent years. Mikel cites our Double-winning campaign under Ancelotti as perhaps his most memorable season so far, but asked to pick his best performance for Chelsea, it is 'without a shadow of a doubt' the one he produced in Munich, the night of our greatest ever triumph.
'Sometimes when you come into big games like that you need players to step up, and I think the whole team did. Everyone played very well. It was a great team performance, we knew how tough it was going to be playing in their stadium but we defended well and when we had to play we did that as well.
'Munich has topped up my Chelsea career, because that trophy was the one the club have always wanted to win, and doing it was brilliant. It was the special one.'
And so, on FA Cup third round duty at Derby, Mikel walked onto the pitch for the 300th time as a Chelsea player, joining Petr Cech, Didier Drogba and Gianfranco Zola as our foreign players to reach that milestone. Following the 2-0 win, which included Mikel's first headed goal for the club, the players went to applaud the travelling Chelsea supporters. It was Mikel's name that rang around the iPro Stadium, recognition not just for his goal on the day but for the great service he has given the club.
'I have always appreciated the Chelsea fans, they've been amazing. They're always there to support the team week in, week out, which just shows how brilliant they are,' Mikel stresses, before finishing our interview with a summary of his time at Stamford Bridge past, present and future.
'It's been an amazing journey. I've enjoyed every bit of it,' he smiles. 'I've worked with some great people, great players from when I came to the ones that are here now. They've all been brilliant.
'I've won a lot of trophies with this team, but I'm still hungry to keep winning more. I'm very happy, I enjoy what I do, coming to the training ground every day, spending time with my team-mates. I hope there are many more years to come.'
Taking into account the opinions of so many who have watched him, played with him and managed him since he joined Chelsea, he is surely not alone in that desire.
By Rupert Cane.