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.

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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.

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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.

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Vertigo

Vertigo: Spurs, Bale and One Fan’s Fear of Success

By John Crace

Constable, 2014

VertigoWe’re approaching a quarter of a century since the publication of Fever Pitch, and yet it remains virtually unchallenged as the benchmark for football fan literature. In the decades since, authors have tended to tread lightly or skirt the genre altogether, as if this central, highly subjective and ever-changing aspect of the sporting experience already has its definitive description. Thankfully, some do dare to disagree and who better to challenge Hornby’s tales of Arsenal than a supporter of their North London foes? In Vertigo, Guardian journalist John Crace has written an entertaining account of what it is to be 1) a football fan and 2) a Tottenham fan. Over the course of the club’s 2010-11 season, we’re treated to several highs (Gareth Bale vs Inter Milan), a few lows (away trips to the Midlands) and a hell of a lot of the irrational inbetween: anxiety, paranoia, pessimism.

Like Fever Pitch, Vertigo is in many respects one long, valiant response to that age-old question, here posed by long-suffering wife Jill – ‘How come you get so much pleasure out of something that gives you so much pain?’ Crace’s answer has two main strands: one universal, the other very individual. The first is the sociable aspect of football fandom, that much-eulogised sense of ‘belonging’. Vertigo is as much about the characters in the stands as it is about ‘Crouchie’, ‘Pav’ and ‘Hudd the Thudd’ on the field. Robbie, the self-conscious, teenage son finding his terrace voice; Justin and Amici the ‘football next-door neighbours’; Trevor and Simon, advisors on all things memorabilia; and best of all Matthew, optimist and narcoleptic father of twins with an unfailing love of Journey and ‘Yacht Rock’. This is Crace’s football gang, the friends with whom he shares every eventuality, and with whom he shares the Tottenham psyche: sceptical of success, welcoming of bitter disappointment.

Speaking of psyche, the second strand of the author’s answer is more unusual and more interesting for that very reason. ‘For those four hours Spurs have my undivided neurosis’ – Crace is very candid and eloquent when discussing his history of mental health issues, and describes the beautiful game as an ‘escape from myself’ as well as a ‘constant endurance test of proving to myself that I can stick with something through both good and bad’. Football also touches on several key relationships in his life – with Robbie, but also with his daughter Anna and his sister Veronica. As Crace concludes with a rare and touching ray of positivity, supporting Tottenham ‘helps me navigate my life.’

As you’d expect from the author of Digested Read, a wry, cutting humour prevails. Crace is a master of pithy one-liners – football is ‘like going to a health spa. Only without the pampering’, ‘Any day when Spurs are playing is better than one when they aren’t. Until kick off’. He is spot-on when it comes to the players – my personal favourite is ‘banker for the catastrophic’ Younes Kaboul  – and spot-on when it comes to the club, ‘a team whose fans grandiosely talk of ‘The Spurs Way’ as a metaphor for attacking, stylish football as we slide to yet another 4-3 defeat’. Thankfully, Crace is also ever-willing to poke fun at himself; the chapters on his souvenir collecting (tickets, shirts, programmes, cup celebration banquet menus) are self-mockery at its best.

My one gripe with Vertigo relates to the paperback update. Richard Swarbrick’s brilliant cover illustration can’t hide the fact that a book published in late 2014 has a preface from 2013. So where you might hope for Crace’s considered views on the sale of Bale and Sherwood’s tenure, instead you find ‘When AVB moves on or is moved on…’ This small grumble aside, Vertigo offers up a well-written and highly enjoyable blend of personal and sporting narrative that should find a much wider audience than just the Spurs faithful. Gooners might not like it but Fever Pitch now has a worthy, contemporary bookshelf rival.

Buy it here