A Tribute Written By Chelsea FC
John Mikel Obi possessed the happy knack of saving his very best performances for when it mattered most. His big-game ability was never more evident than in May 2012 when we lifted the Champions League for the first time in our history. His outstanding display in the final against Bayern Munich was a key factor in our success that year, and he produced similarly titanic performances in many European and domestic cup finals and semi-finals during his 10-and-a-half seasons at the Bridge.
Signed in the summer of 2006 by Jose Mourinho, the 19-year-old Mikel moved to west London from Norwegian club Lyn Oslo as a talented, raw, powerfully-built attacking midfielder. Mourinho quickly outlined his desire to play the Nigerian in a holding midfield role, however, and it was in that position that he would be deployed in the years to come.
Despite the presence in our squad of arguably the greatest defensive midfielder of all time, Claude Makelele, Mikel still made over 40 appearances in his first season, and he more or less maintained that level of consistency when it came to playing time throughout his Chelsea career.
He smoothed out some rough edges both on and off the pitch in the early part of his time in England. As a long and dramatic first campaign reached its climax, Mikel started eight of our last nine games - including both legs of our Champions League semi-final defeat to Liverpool – evidence of his growing importance in the team.
The season ended on a high note when we beat Manchester United in the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley. Mikel survived a pre-match injury scare to play the full 120 minutes, shining in midfield alongside Makelele and helping restrict that season’s league champions to almost no clear opportunities. He was named Chelsea Young Player of the Year.
By the end of the following term he had played more games in the ‘Makelele’ role than the old master of the position, and top displays were commonplace in 2008/09. Makelele left for PSG and with Michael Essien injured for much of the campaign, Mikel became the permanent anchor man.
His assurance in front of the back four played a decisive role as we kept seven consecutive clean sheets away from home in the Premier League before Christmas, still a top-flight record. Mikel did not miss a minute of that impressive run.
Under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink, Mikel continued to flourish, most notably in the Nou Camp, where we kept a clean sheet in the first leg of our Champions League semi-final with Barcelona, and at Wembley, where his calm touch was a major contribution to the 2009 FA Cup win over Everton.
Further injury to Essien in 2009/10 ensured that for the second season running Mikel was the primary choice as deep-lying midfielder, and he rewarded new manager Carlo Ancelotti with a series of fine performances during the Double-winning campaign, including in famous victories at the Emirates and Old Trafford.
On his return from the Africa Cup of Nations in February, where Nigeria exited at the semi-final stage, he started every game until his own knee and ankle problems in mid-April ruled him out of the season's two-trophy climax, and the first African World Cup Finals. He did however have his first league championship winners' medal, and in a season spent in a highly-competitive area of the pitch he was only booked four times, further evidence his own on-pitch discipline problems were long behind him.
Mikel passed the 200-game milestone for Chelsea during 2010/11, a season in which he started all but 10 league games. We ended that season trophyless but the same could not be said of the following campaign, which climaxed in that night in Munich.
When backs-to-the-wall performances were required in tense end-of-season Champions League affairs, Mikel delivered, helping the team to a fine away win against Benfica, an extraordinary draw at the Nou Camp and in the final itself, when he produced his finest performance in a Chelsea shirt as we won the trophy for the very first time.
He also lifted his fourth FA Cup, playing the full 90 minutes in the 2-1 victory over Liverpool. His skill and awareness in midfield created space for Lampard to in turn tee up Didier Drogba for what proved to be the game’s decisive goal.
Mikel was rewarded for his longstanding consistency and commitment in Chelsea blue with a new five-year contract in December 2012, and there was further cause for celebration when Nigeria won the African Cup of Nations in February 2013. He played all but one minute of the Super Eagles’ victorious campaign in South Africa and was widely hailed afterwards as the tournament’s outstanding player.
The man who had first managed Mikel at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho, returned to Chelsea ahead of the 2013/14 season and the Nigerian celebrated with his first goal since January 2007, when he netted in successive rounds of the FA Cup. His controlled volley in a 2-0 win over Fulham at the Bridge was met with unbridled joy both on the pitch and in the stands.
Often trusted by Mourinho to come on as we sought to close out a positive result, Mikel reached 300 Chelsea appearances in a memorable 2-0 FA Cup triumph at Derby in January 2014. When Essien was replaced with the game goalless, Mikel took over the captain’s armband for the first time in his Chelsea career and promptly scored his second goal of an increasingly profitable season in that department, heading home Willian’s free-kick to set us on our way to victory.
Mikel again showed his appetite for the big occasion as the season approached its climax, excelling both in our Champions League semi-final first leg with Atletico Madrid, and then five days later as we secured a famous victory at Anfield.
Though never a regular in the Premier League and Capital One Cup-winning 2014/15 campaign, Mikel’s experience proved critical especially when the result was in the balance. Standout individual moments came courtesy of a delightful backheel assist to set up Diego Costa in a big win at Goodison Park, and his first Champions League goal against Sporting Lisbon.
A more noteworthy European strike followed in February 2016, away to PSG, and it was during the second half of last season that Mikel helped steady the ship, under the returning Hiddink, after a tumultuous start to our title defence. His performances earned plenty of praise from his manager, as well as the supporters, who sung his name as often as anyone’s.
Mikel did not feature for Chelsea this term but captained Nigeria to a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, adding yet another accolade to his extensive collection.
In total, Mikel made 372 appearances for the club - the 17th-highest figure of anyone in our history - and won 10 major honours. He leaves with the respect and appreciation of those who managed him, played alongside him and watched him during his decade-long stay at Stamford Bridge.