Fantastic Mr Ruel Fox

On a slope above Newcastle city centre there was a stadium called St James’ Park.

In the stadium there was a football pitch. On the football pitch lived ‘The Magpies’ and their tricky winger Mr Ruel Fox, ‘the best player in his position in the country’ according to his manager, Mr Kevin Keegan.

Every Saturday before kick-off, Mr Fox would say to Mr Keegan, ‘Well, my darling, what shall it be this time? A mazy dribble down the wing past the full-back? A cross to Mr Rob Lee? A pull-back to Mr Peter Beardsley? Or a thunder blaster of my own?’ And when Mr Keegan had told him what he wanted, Mr Fox would creep out onto the pitch at St James’ Park and help himself.

The defenders knew very well what was going on, and it made them wild with rage. When he played for Norwich City, even Bayern Munich couldn’t stop Mr Fox.

image

So what could decidedly average Premier League defenders do about him? Kenny Cunningham, Des Lyttle and John Wark were not men who liked to give anything away.

But Mr Fox was too clever for them. When Wimbledon came to town, the harsh North-Eastern winds carried the smell of Cunningham to Mr Fox’s nose as he twisted and turned towards goal. He quickly changed direction and slammed a pile-driver into the top corner. Goal!

‘Dang and blast him!’ cried Cunningham.

‘I’d like to rip his guts out!’ said Wark. ‘How on earth can we stop the blighter?’

Lyttle picked his nose delicately with a long finger. ‘I have a plan,’ he said.

11th February 1995, Newcastle United vs Nottingham Forest

‘Well, my darling,’ said Mr Fox. ‘What shall it be tonight?’

‘I’d like another goal please,’ said Mr Keegan. ‘Now do be careful – you know they’ll be waiting for you.’

‘I can smell those goons a mile away,’ said Mr Fox. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’

But in the first half, Mr Fox barely got a sniff of the ball. Mr Andy Cole had moved away to Manchester United and so The Magpies needed goals, goals, goals. New signing Mr Keith Gillespie wasn’t going to get many; Mr Keegan was relying on Mr Fox, even if he did wear the Number 5 shirt. But whenever he cut inside, Lyttle was there to stop him and he had help from his midfield. His plan was working.

In the second half, Mr Fox inched forward a little more. He passed the ball from the left wing to the right wing and made a clever run into the box for the cross. He wasn’t the tallest but Lyttle wasn’t prepared for his leap. Mr Fox’s header crept past the goalkeeper. Goal!

‘Dang and blast!’ said Lyttle, putting his hands on his head. ‘I should have just fouled him the moment he came out on to the pitch.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that Mr Fox won’t be causing trouble again in a hurry,’ Wark said.

js54472106

28th February 1995, Ipswich Town vs Newcastle United

‘I’ll tell you what we don’t do,’ Wark told his teammates as they walked out to face The Magpies. ‘We don’t let him go!’

‘Never never never!’ cried Frank Yallop.

‘Did you hear that, Mr Fox!’ yelled David Linighan. ‘It’s not over yet, Mr Fox!’

The Ipswich defenders were about as nasty and mean as any moustachioed men you could meet. On the touchline, Mr Keegan began to cry. He gathered his substitutes close to him and held them tight.

Suddenly there was an especially loud crunch as Wark sent Mr Peter Beardsley flying through the air. The sight of this awful thing seemed to have an electric effect upon Mr Fox. ‘I’ve got it!’ he shouted. ‘Nobody in the world is as deadly from long range as a Fox!’

Mr Fox pretended to take the free-kick but it was Mr John Beresford who swung the ball into the box. Yallop cleared but it fell straight to Mr Fox. In a flash, he sent another thirty-yard screamer flying towards the top corner. Goal!

After the match, The Magpies sat down, panting for breath. Mr Keegan said to them, ‘If it wasn’t for Ruel, we might have lost that game. Ruel is a fantastic Fox.’

Meanwhile, outside St James’ Park, the defenders were all very tired and cross.

‘Whose rotten idea was that?’ asked Cunningham as they watched the highlights on Match of the Day.

‘Wark’s idea,’ replied Lyttle, looking glum.

‘It was a good idea but we weren’t good enough,’ said Wark. ‘There’s only one thing to do – starve him of the ball.’

They quickly passed the message on to other defenders – Southampton’s Jason Dodd, Leeds United’s Gary Kelly, Manchester City’s Terry Phelan. They marked Mr Fox very closely and refused to let him escape.

‘Ruel, couldn’t you try just one little dribble or shot?’ asked Mr Beardsley in the St James’ Park dressing room.

‘No, that’s just what they want him to do,’ said Mr Keegan.

‘But we’re so hungry for goals!’ Mr Paul Kitson cried. ‘How long will it be till we get a decent cross?’

Mr Keegan had no answer to give.

‘How long can a Fox go without touching the ball?’ Wark asked the other defenders.

‘Not much longer now,’ Cunningham told him. ‘Keegan took him off at half-time against Tottenham. I hear he’s thinking about bringing in some foreign flair for next season.’

14th May 1995, Newcastle United vs Crystal Palace

At St James’ Park, The Magpies were slowly but surely dropping down the Premier League table.

Mr Fox had not spoken for a long time. Mr Keegan knew that he was trying to think of a way out of their slide. Suddenly, as they prepared for the final game of the season, there was a little spark of excitement dancing in Mr Fox’s eyes.

Mr Darren Peacock dribbled forward from defence, with his luscious locks flowing in the North-Eastern wind. Then he passed to Mr Fox, who was just inside the Crystal Palace half.

The defenders had told Gareth Southgate how to stop Mr Fox but when he was at his mazy, jinky best, it was impossible to stop him. As Mr Fox cut inside, a Palace player flew in for the tackle but he was too late. Mr Fox shot for goal and it cannoned off a Palace player and looped over the goalkeeper’s head. Goal!

He let out a shriek of excitement and punched the air. ‘I’ve done it!’ he yelled.

Twenty minutes later, Mr Fox put a perfect cross on to Mr Lee’s head.

0527fb32-74bf-49fe-a28e-fecdf02d84ed

‘Oh, what a fantastic Fox you are!’ Mr Keegan told him at full-time.

But soon lovely Mr David Ginola arrived at St James’ Park and Mr Fox had to move away to ‘The Spurs’ in London.

‘We’re starving for goals too!’ said Mr Teddy Sheringham when he arrived at White Hart Lane. ‘Darren Anderton is always injured. We’re done for.’

‘There’ll be plenty of goals to go round, I can assure you,’ said Mr Fox.

‘You mean it?’ cried Teddy. ‘You really mean it?’

Mr Fox nodded confidently.

When Nottingham Forest came to White Hart Lane, Little was waiting for Mr Fox. He refused to let him escape and The Spurs lost 1-0.

When The Spurs travelled to Wimbledon, Cunningham was waiting for Mr Fox. For 85 minutes, Cunningham starved him of the ball but right at the end, Mr Fox crept in to steal the win for The Spurs.

At the post-match meal, Teddy stood up. ‘A toast! To our dear friend who has saved us this day – Mr Fox!’

‘To Mr Fox!’ The Spurs all shouted, standing up and raising their glasses. ‘Long may he live!’

Then Mr Gerry Francis, their manager, got to his feet. ‘I just want to say one thing, and it is this: RUEL IS A FANTASTIC FOX.’

After a few great years, Mr Fox moved on to West Brom and then to the Montserrat national team. He is now retired and runs Ipswich Bootcamps.

Cunningham, Little and Wark joined Masters Football, waiting for Mr Fox to return. And as far as I know, they are still waiting.

ruelfox

Advertisements

Los Demás: Spanish Football Stories

Sometimes football journalism can feel pretty two-dimensional. If isn’t the mainstream media reporting on the biggest stories, it’s those awful click-bait sites reporting on the biggest ‘stories’. So thank goodness for the less fickle storytellers like These Football Times, The Blizzard, The Football Pink and now Los Demás.

ec1724d1acadab131ae7e74a508c306c_original

This exciting new, long-form journalism project, focusing on the best stories from all across Spain, is the brainchild of Nick Dorrington, Colin Millar, Euan McTear and Pål Ødegård. I caught up with Nick to learn more about the idea, the inspiration and the plan of attack. If you like the sound of Los Demás, don’t forget to back the Kickstarter project!

1. Talk me through the inspiration for this project. I know all four of you are very experienced Spanish football writers but was there a breakthrough, meeting-of-minds that kickstarted (pun intended) this?

The initial idea was mine. I was in Argentina researching a piece on the origins of Mauricio Pochettino. The ex-president of the youth team in his hometown of Murphy said something that really resonated with me. He said that many people think football is just about the big clubs, about Boca Juniors or River Plate, but the reality is that it is in small towns like Murphy that football lives on a day-to-day basis. There was something attractive about that idea to me, and Spain seemed like the ideal setting in which to explore it further.

There are journalists based in Spain doing excellent work but the reality is that the majority of mainstream coverage is focused on Barcelona and Real Madrid. We wanted to offer something a bit different and in Colin, Euan and Pål, I found three superb writers who shared my vision for the project.

2. Am I right in thinking that the content will be mostly historical and social, rather than match reports and current updates? Do you have any examples of the sort of content that subscribers will be receiving?

Yes, that’s right. We will be looking for stories that shed a light on the clubs, communities, players and personalities who best represent the vibrant and diverse culture of Spanish football. For example, there are stories to be told of the grassroots supporter movements at clubs who were or are in danger of going out of business. Or of a small, otherwise unremarkable, town that has produced a number of Spanish internationals. Or of a supporter who is older than the club he supports. Stories like these, stories about people and communities, will be at the heart of our work.

spain3x

3. I’m interested in the production values – will there be images/illustrations alongside the text?

The plan at the moment is for the focus to be on the quality of the writing. The presentation will be clean and simple.

4. Is your aim to cover all Spanish clubs except Barcelona and Real Madrid, or will the content be audience-driven? Will subscribers get a say in what you write about?

Our aim is to cover the most interesting stories we can find from all over Spain – be that player, team, city or region-specific. I think it will be a largely organic process for the first year or so. But perhaps after that we will sit down and mark out the teams and regions we haven’t yet covered in order to ensure that our coverage is as widespread as possible. We will, of course, always be open to story tips from readers.

5. Would you say that this project is in some ways the result of a mainstream sports media that is rejecting long-form journalism?

Yes, I think it can be seen as a reaction to that, which isn’t to say that there aren’t outlets out there for long-form journalism. For example, The Lab at Bleacher Report has produced some excellent pieces. But these outlets are mainly interested in content that relates to big-name teams or players. It can be hard to find somewhere to place more character-driven pieces that don’t rely on an established name as a hook.

6. Again on the subject of long-form journalism, what made you decide on the crowdfunding subscription model rather than the traditional print book?

We felt that the crowdfunding model offered us the best chance of making a sustained success out of the project. Publishing on a monthly basis will allow us the freedom to explore interesting stories as they develop, instead of being tied to a single deadline as we would be for a book. It will hopefully also serve us in building our readership over time as word spreads about our early pieces.

7. Finally, do you have a 140 character sales pitch for potential subscribers?

Love Spanish football? Then help support in-depth, long-form journalism on the untold stories of the Spanish game by backing Los Demás.

Click here to learn more and back the Kickstarter project

The Wrestle

i

Few children have ever had a sweet tooth like me. That boast is neither idle nor proud – it just strikes me as a good place to start this story. Back then, I could compete with a heroin addict and, naturally, that worried my parents. Ice cream and chocolate were carefully rationed with hiding places and tally charts but one thing escaped the clamp down: diluting juice, or high juice squash. Mum marked the bottle level from time to time but the addition of water made it only a moderate level health risk. How wrong she was.

Tropical was my flavour of choice, with its bevy of exotic fruits. Why have one when you could have ten? Regrettably, that was my attitude to many things back then. The marigold nectar became my midnight feast, especially at the weekend when my parents went to bed after watching Parkinson. I would wake at 12.30 like a cuckoo in a clock, my mouth dry and craving sugary goodness. My bare feet landed softly on every other step on the staircase, leaping the creaky, mid-way landing like it was a crocodile-filled ravine. The adventure gave my young heart a real work-out.

My brother Daniel and I used to do everything together: football in the back garden, football in the park, football on the computer, football in notebooks on car journeys. Even when we moved to separate rooms, we’d have football sleepovers in the school holidays. But now, at the age of 14, he had become a nocturnal beast. Daniel was two and a half years older than me and that came with special privileges. First among these was TV. To protect his vision, Mum marked out a ten yard distance like a football referee but that was pretty much the only legislation on a Friday night. So Daniel brought his duvet and pillow down and set up camp on our new sofa. Within weeks, it held the deep imprints of his contours.

I crept along the hallway like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. The kitchen light was still on and I stealthily poured myself a strong one, running the cold tap at a quiet trickle. A double, I’d call it now. Usually, that was the end of it but on this occasion, I was wide awake and curious. I padded over to the lounge doorway and peered around the corner. The volume was turned right down and at first, the screen was pitch black. Then a single gold spotlight appeared in the top corner and confetti swirled through the air. The camera panned slowly down to reveal a dimly-lit figure with long blonde hair, wearing an extravagant golden robe. I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement. It’s the same feeling I get now when I watch the YouTube video.

‘What is this?’ I whispered.

With cat-like reflexes, Daniel changed the channel. But a Dad’s Army repeat wasn’t fooling anyone.

‘Why aren’t you in bed?’ he asked.

‘I could ask you the same question’ I thought to myself but I didn’t say it. Instead, I went with ‘Just getting a glass of water.’ But I stayed where I was and Daniel had a decision to make: keep pretending to watch Dad’s Army, or trust me to secrecy. With a searching look, he chose the latter.

‘It’s Smackdown,’ he whispered, lowering his head back to the pillow as if his work was done.

I lay down on the thick green carpet, close enough so that I could hear the commentary. I can still remember the cold touch of the metal threshold on the tips of my toes. The blonde-haired figure was now standing at the centre of a square that was fenced around with ropes. It looked like a boxing ring but where were the gloves? Slowly, the robe was removed to reveal a tight gold and black suit. Then, off came the long blonde wig to reveal a man with short blonde hair and a face painted gold. His eyes and mouth were painted black like a panda. I still had no idea what I was watching. ‘GOLDUST’ the TV caption said. That made some kind of sense.

When the lights came back on, Goldust began to fight. But this was no playground fighting. The duel had the back-and-forth energy of a courtroom drama, and the acrobatics of a synchronised gymnastics routine. When someone got punched, they didn’t pretend that it didn’t hurt; they fell to the floor like they’d been shot and then stumbled back to their feet. They stood, dazed, and waited for further punishment. Was this how adults fought? I looked at Daniel and we shared a complicit smile, our first since he had started secondary school two years earlier.

The commentators spoke an alien, raucous language of ‘turnbuckles’, ‘supplexes’, ‘pins’ and ‘sleeper holds’. Daniel seemed to know what was going on but it wasn’t the time for questions. I just watched and absorbed. It was like a comic book come to life, a pantomime with heroes and villains and ‘he’s behind you’ moments.

1! 2! 3! It’s over!

And so began the wrestle.

Goldust

ii

Smackdown became our weekly, brotherly ritual. Often we cheered on rival fighters, placing bets of 10p a time. Sometimes, my pocket money disappeared altogether. But best of all were the matches where we were routing for the same team. And no-one received our shared devotion like the Legion of Doom.

What a RUSH!

Road Warriors ‘Hawk’ and ‘Animal’ rode motorcycles to the ring and wore big, spiked shoulder pads. My guess is that now they’d be Donald Trump supporters but back then, they were our heroes. They had Mohawks and painted faces, and were the greatest Tag Team Champions in WWF history. Red and black were their colours, the same colours as the football team that Daniel and I played for.

Their big move was the ‘Doomsday Device’, a grand term for a flying clothesline. One Road Warrior would lift an opponent onto his shoulders and the other would jump down from the top rope. Once the ‘Doomsday Device’ had been detonated, the match was always over. It was amazing how devastating an arm across the face could be.

‘Don’t try this at home’ the adverts always said but we didn’t listen. I would stand in the middle of our parents’ big double bed with a pillow on my shoulders and Daniel would jump off the laundry basket in the corner of the room. With a little more training we believed that we could be the next Tag Team Champions. I was ‘The Glamma Kid’ and Daniel was ‘The Trendsetter’. Together, we called ourselves ‘The Icons of Style’. Our finisher was a flying legdrop called ‘This Year’s Fashion’. My brother wasn’t much of an artist and so I drew our profiles with matching costumes and our vital statistics. I even drew a picture of us fighting against the Legion of Doom. We kept these in a plastic wallet for when we were ready to compete professionally.

It was all fun while it lasted. Looking back, wrestling was the ideal bond, pitched perfectly between us. I was young enough to delight in a ‘grown-up’ thing and Daniel wasn’t yet old enough to show much interest in girls. In other ways we were disentangling but Friday Night Smackdown was our weird and wonderful tether.

There were several key factors in our retirement from the ring. The first came quite early on and it crushed me like few things have ever done since. I’d heard rumours at school but nothing from anyone I considered trustworthy. I decided that only one person could tell me the truth.

‘Dan, wrestling is real, right?’ I asked in as casual a way as possible. My brother didn’t need to know the impact that his answer could have.

There was a long pause.

‘Sorry Sam, I thought you already knew,’ was all he could muster. It was like Father Christmas all over again.

The second was that we broke our parents’ bed. One day as Daniel landed ‘This Year’s Fashion’, we heard the loud snap of slats. We looked at each other, panic in our eyes. We tried to tape things back together but the game was up. We never said a word to our parents but one day, a new bed arrived. It was tempting to continue but we agreed that we couldn’t risk breaking another.

Besides, Daniel was showing signs of restlessness. He wanted to go solo. He was now much stronger than me and so for a while, I became his punch bag. ‘The Chokeslam’, ‘The Rock Bottom’, ‘The Pedigree’ – I experienced them all, with varying degrees of pain. We were careering towards the final collapse, the breaking of this particular tether. It came with a ‘Tombstone Piledriver’, performed on a thinly carpeted floor. Daniel’s technique was flawless with one notable exception. When The Undertaker did it, his opponent’s head never hit the floor. Mine did and at full speed.

‘Sam, are you ok?’ he asked as I stumbled off to get a glass of water.

‘Yeah,’ I said, rubbing the bump that was already rising. I could feel a migraine coming on.

‘Are you sure?’

I nodded and went up to my room. The wrestle was over.

LoD.png

iii

A 30th birthday requires a special gift, especially if it’s your brother. If it can’t be expensive, it has to be really thoughtful. A fancy restaurant voucher? No, I had to do better than that. The adult world had brought us closer again – his son was my nephew, and football was still football.

Mum and Dad were downsizing, which for me meant a long weekend of cleaning and nostalgia. After university, I had never bothered to go home and collect the first eighteen years of my life. They sat there in my old bedroom like a poorly organised museum. It was on the second day of sorting that I found the plastic wallet containing our wrestling profiles. ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’. What a time to be alive.

My first thought was Wikipedia – what were Hawk and Animal up to these days? The answer was largely distressing. After years of drug and alcohol addiction, Hawk had died of a heart attack at the age of 46. Animal, however, was still making occasional WWE guest appearances and his son was an NFL linebacker. He had even written an autobiography called The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling. With one Amazon click, I bought it for £8.48.

My next thought was Twitter. There were several ‘Road Warrior Animal’ listings but the one with the most followers (4,614) looked to be the real deal. I clicked ‘Follow’ and sent him a tweet asking for him to follow me back so that I could send him a direct message. After two months of trying, he finally did. Not only was Animal now my first celebrity follower but I had the chance to speak to him. I had so many questions but I needed to stay focused.

‘Dear Animal, I hope you’re well. My brother is a big fan of yours and it’s his 30th birthday next month. If I send you something, could you sign it for me please? Ps. I’ll send you money for the return postage.’

A week later, Joe Laurinaitis (his real name) sent me an address in Chicago. I put the autobiography in a Jiffy bag along with my drawing of ‘The Legion of Doom’ vs ‘The Icons of Style’ and a short letter:

Dear Road Warrior Animal,

I really appreciate your help with this. When we were growing up, my brother Daniel and I loved watching the Legion of Doom. I’m very sorry to hear of Hawk’s death. If you could sign the book and the drawing, it would really mean a lot to my brother.

If you don’t mind, I had a couple of questions that I’d like to ask you:

1) Why ‘Hawk’ and then ‘Animal’? If you’re going to call one after a particular type of bird, why call the other something so generic? I always thought you should have been called ‘Falcon’, ‘Eagle’ or ‘Buzzard’

2) Were you ever tempted to leave those spiky shoulder pads on when you wrestled? You would certainly have won more fights that way

Kind regards,

Sam Murphy

 

I still haven’t received anything from Animal, and Daniel’s birthday was two months ago. Perhaps it got lost in the post, perhaps Animal has a huge backlog of fanmail, or perhaps he reacted badly to my questions.

Luckily, Daniel’s favourite footballer, former Newcastle winger Nolberto Solano, is very active on social media, and his signed shirt hangs proudly on Daniel’s wall:

‘To The Trendsetter,

Best wishes, Nobby’

Alexis Sanchez! Luis Suárez! Eden Hazard!

First we brought you the exciting stories of Bale, Rooney and Sterling and now we’re back with three more must-read titles for football mad 9-12 year-olds. Enjoy!

Alexis Sanchez: The Wonder Boy

Sanchez

This is the story of the Arsenal superstar’s incredible journey from the streets of Tocopilla to become ‘The Boy Wonder’, a national hero, and one of the most talented players in the world. With his pace, skill and eye for a goal, Alexis is now one of the Premier League’s biggest stars. The story is every bit as exciting as the player.

Read all about Alexis’ exciting childhood, his rise through Chilean football, his partnership with Antonio Di Natale at Udinese, his time with Messi and co at Barcelona, and his amazing first season at Arsenal.

Luis Suárez: El Pistolero

Suarez book

Follow the Uruguayan’s winding path from love-struck youngster to Liverpool hero to Barcelona star. Grabbing goals and headlines along the way, Luis chased his dreams and became a Champions League winner. This is the inspiring story of how the world’s deadliest striker made his mark.

Read all about Luis’ move to Europe, his World Cup adventures, his brilliant time at Anfield with Steven Gerrard, and his big money move to Barcelona to join Messi and Neymar.

Eden Hazard: The Boy in Blue

Hazard

This is the thrilling tale of how the wing wizard went from local wonder kid to league champion. With the support of his football-obsessed family, Eden worked hard to develop his amazing dribbling skills and earn his dream transfer to Chelsea.

Read all about Eden’s days as a child prodigy in Belgium, his trophy-winning days in France with Lille, his development under José Mourinho, and his incredible rise to become a league champion at Chelsea and the best player in the Premier League.

 Series.jpg

A Patient Man: The Career of John Obi Mikel

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.

John Obi 1

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.

John Obi Mikel, Cesar Delgado

‘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.

John Obi 4

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.

John Obi 3