On a cold December night, John Obi’s phone rang. It was Victor Moses. It was so easy to forget about Victor – was he still a Chelsea player?
‘They say Guus is coming back!’
The news left John Obi with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it would be nice to feel wanted again but on the other, it would mean a lot more playing and a lot more running. On balance, the negatives seemed to outweigh the positives. John Obi had always been happy to play understudy to the likes of Nemanja Matić, Claude Makelele, Michael Essien and Steve Sidwell. He wasn’t a 45-games-a-season kind of midfielder but he could accept that. There was honour in treading water.
He did, however, have very fond memories of that 2008-09 season. First Big Phil and then Guus; finally, two managers who had really understood him. With box-to-boxers like Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack alongside him in midfield, John Obi could stick to his favoured middle third. He was nominated for club player of the season. If it had been a more acceptable sport for men, he would have loved to play netball. What some critics saw as laziness, he preferred to think of as ‘discipline’. He did it all for the team.
He could still remember arriving at Stamford Bridge for £16million in 2006. The Chelsea fans were delighted because they’d pipped Man Utd to the post. He was young, tall and strong and he was the second best player at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup behind Leo Messi. But John Obi couldn’t understand the fuss; he wasn’t a replacement for Eddie Newton, he wasn’t the new Celestine Babayaro. He couldn’t even do a back flip. All he had was a rotating name and a wayward shot.
From day one, Mourinho had never liked him. John Obi turned up a little late for training five times in his first few weeks and the next thing he knew, Jose had questioned his commitment.
‘Most of the time you don’t even tackle enough to get booked!’ José complained but John Obi would never be Lee Catermole. He liked to wait and pick his fights carefully: Kolo Touré, Phil Neville, Mark Clattenburg. ‘We have different values’ was all John Obi said to his best friend Salomon Kalou. He couldn’t abide his manager’s very strict preference for work-rate and passion from his defensive midfielders. Even the sideways pass was being outlawed. He found it hard to fit into such futuristic plans.
But while others moved on, John Obi stayed put. Some critics called him a parasite but he had a long way to go to reach Winston Bogarde levels. Drive just didn’t come naturally to him. When Benoit Assou-Ekotto took his title as the Premier League’s least interested player in 2010, he was annoyed but not enough to do anything about it.
At the 2013 African Cup of Nations, Nigerian fans called for ‘the other Mikel’. John Obi was confused.
‘Do they mean Arteta?’ he asked teammate Efe Ambrose. ‘I think he’s Spanish.’
‘No, I think they want you to pass forward and sometimes run into the penalty area to shoot,’ Efe replied.
John Obi tried but he wasn’t Victor Moses.
In 10 seasons, he had scored just one Premier League goal. Against Fulham, John Obi found himself in the penalty area for an attacking corner. The defenders had never seen him before and left him to his own devices. Terry knocked a header down and he tucked it away like a striker. It was a very happy day.
There had been many of those. In the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, he played the full 120 minutes. Jamie Redknapp told the world that John Obi was ‘literally putting our fires everywhere’. He had never felt so tired in all his life.
But when Mourinho returned to Chelsea, he bought Matić straight away. John Obi could imagine the conversation:
José – I need a midfield enforcer.
Roman – What about Mikel?
José – I said a midfield enforcer.
John Obi was playing fewer and fewer games and there was talk about a move to Russia. He went to speak to Mourinho.
‘John Obi, you’re like four-fifths of a plug. You can fill a gap for a little while but ultimately, things will get through.’
It was a nice analogy. He nodded and waited for The Special One’s downfall. Now Guus was returning and John Obi would lace up his big boy boots once more to play the leading role.