The term ‘unsung hero’ gets thrown around a lot in football. Fans are quick to label their favourite players as underappreciated if their opinion is not the general consensus of supporters, but former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel epitomises the meaning of the term, and here is why.

The Nigerian is considered by many Chelsea fans to be a club legend, although his name is hardly ever mentioned in the debate of Chelsea’s all time best team. His legendary status started with his transfer to the club, a deal that was finalised after 12 months of toing and froing with Manchester United. Mikel eventually joined the Blues in June 2006 after he was quoted saying Chelsea were the club he genuinely wanted to sign for.

After a ten year stay at the club, Mikel departed the Bridge for China in January 2017 and spent two years at Tianjin TEDA. A return to England was confirmed on Thursday morning as Middlesbrough announced the capture of the veteran midfielder on a short-term contract until the end of the season.

The primary reason Mikel was not loved by all fans, including those of opponents, was his general style of play. He kept the game simple and left the flair players to do the pretty work. He was very effective at this but, because it was not attractive, some fans were against him being in the team.

Every successful side needs a no-nonsense tackler in the base of their midfield to break up play and recycle the ball. A player to do the dirty work, if you will. Current Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kanté did this to an extreme level between 2015 and 2018 and was adored because of it. Mikel did a similar job to Kanté, albeit to a lower standard, but received nowhere near the same praise.

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Mikel tackling Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic in 2012. Credit: CTV News.

Manchester City’s midfield is anchored by Fernandinho, a player who was instrumental in their record breaking title winning campaign. He consistently shut off opponents’ attacks and, similar to Kanté, received endless plaudits for doing so. It begs the question whether Mikel would be more appreciated if he played in the Premier League now, perhaps because fans have come to accept that defensive minded midfielders can be just as important and influential as goal scorers.

Kanté and Fernandinho are a level above Mikel, but the Nigerian still executed his role to a high standard. He played in an era at Chelsea with talented midfielders who were allowed to express themselves knowing they had defensive solidity behind them. Frank Lampard, for example, would not have scored as many goals as he did for the Blues if his defensive responsibilities were not engulfed by players like Mikel. In simpler terms, the purpose of a holding midfielder is not just to break up play, but also to be of the benefit of more attack minded players.

The now 31-year-old played under an extraordinary eight managers in his time in West London, ten including Mourinho and Hiddink’s second spells. Each manager stuck with Mikel despite the player’s critics which says a lot about his quality and consistency. Discounting his final season at the club in which he left in January, Mikel featured in at least 30 games in all competitions every season bar one. He covered more ground than many realise and it is a testament to his fitness that he stayed match fit so often.

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Mikel in conversation with former boss José Mourinho on the touchline in the 2014/15 campaign. Credit: Eagleseye Footy.

It is clear Mikel was a manager’s favourite at Chelsea. Some of the greatest coaches of this generation shared a training ground with Mikel on a daily basis, and they had plenty of love for the Nigerian. Here are a selection of quotes from his former bosses:

José Mourinho: “He is a genius in his position. It is a miracle if he loses the ball.”

Luiz Felipe Scolari: “I knew he would be a big part of my team. With Claude Makélélé leaving I was sure Mikel could be the player to play in his position in the future.”

Rafa Benitez: “Obi has experience and you could expect good performances from him.”

Carlo Ancelotti: “I have a lot of trust in Mikel. He has great quality, both technical and tactical.” 

Another reason Mikel was unloved was because he lacked end product, an element of the game that very few defensive midfielders are adept in. His only Premier League goal in 249 appearances came in the West London derby against Fulham in 2013.

Relive it here: (Credit – YouTube: Caitlin Parchment).

Mikel’s goal drought led to humorous chants from Chelsea fans. Cries of “shoot!” echoed around the Bridge whenever the ball fell to the Nigerian outside the box. However, while the likes of Lampard and Drogba were putting the ball in the back of the net at one end, Mikel was crucial to keeping them out at the other. If anything, going 185 league games without a goal made the moment even sweeter when it did come around.

One of Mikel’s most underappreciated attributes was his ability to keep the ball. He was seen as someone who would intercept or tackle a player and then panic and pass to the nearest teammate. This was not the case. After collecting the ball, Mikel was comfortable with holding onto it and even taking opponents on. He would carry the ball forward while scanning the pitch and then distribute the ball to the best option.

Eagle-eyed fans would have noticed his confidence in his own ability. Very rarely would you see Mikel with his head down while on the ball. He would always be looking up in search for a pass forward, a trait money cannot buy.

Lastly, any player who featured in the 2012 Champions League campaign will go down in Chelsea’s history. Mikel played every minute from the quarter-finals onwards and had the full trust of his manager Roberto Di Matteo. In a final where Chelsea were without key players and had to field a half fit team, Mikel soldiered through the game and was vital to coming away with the trophy. Many players were on their last legs heading into extra time, including Mikel, but his heroic performance along with the rest of the team will mean he always has a place in Chelsea fans’ hearts.

Two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, one League Cup, one Community Shield, one Europa League and the one with the big ears. John Obi Mikel, you sir, are an unsung hero.

Written by Liam Wilson.