‘Character, character, character’ – Stoke City’s chase for John Obi Mikel, his form at 33 and why Tony Pulis loved him


There is no one questioning John Obi Mikel’s CV or his quality over the years as he winds his way to Stoke City.

But what will Stoke be getting from Mikel in 2020 at the age of 33? What role will he play and what form has he been in recently?

Stoke have moved from one defensive midfielder to another since letting Glenn Whelan join Aston Villa in 2017.

Geoff Cameron had seemed prime candidate only to suffer injuries, Ryan Woods immediately impressed but almost as quickly fell out of favour, Jordan Cousins was lauded by Nathan Jones… who then only picked him twice.

So Mikel?

‘It’s called the Maelele role for a reason’

First of all, there is no doubt that Mikel has been one of the masters of this position for the best part of the last 12 years since being groomed for that particular task by Jose Mourinho, who was trying to replace Claude Makelele and lost Michael Essien to injury.

Mikel later told FourFourTwo: “It’s called the Makelele role for a reason. Claude was just so good in that position and made it his own – he brought it to everyone’s attention how important it could be. It wasn’t the position I wanted to play growing up, but when I came to Chelsea, Mourinho saw me playing there, and it worked. I changed my position and he saw that I could be good there.

“Claude was my role model, and I was young when I started, so he was the one I admired. I’m very honoured and happy to have played a season with him, I learned so much in that year before he retired.”

He added: “I do think you have to be selfless. It’s a position that you play where you are open to a lot of criticism from fans, who maybe don’t see all the work you do. They come to the stadium to see the ball go into the back of the net. But we don’t do that.

“It’s a position that you can play well without actually touching the ball, because it’s all about positioning and coverage. You cover for the back four, the midfield, everyone. You keep the balance of the team. I did initially want to play further forward, and getting forward is something I love to do, but I think defensive midfield worked out suiting me very well.”

Mikel’s initial post-Chelsea career

Mikel came to the fore in English football during his time with Chelsea, with whom he won the Champions League, Europa League, two Premier League titles and three FA Cups during an 11-year stay.

He left for a new challenge in China in early 2017, joining Tianjin TEDA for what turned out to be a lucrative two seasons towards the wrong end of the Chinese Super League – but he would ultimately rue heading east at that stage of his career.

“It was two years of culture shock,” he told the Telegraph. “The foot was a problem, the lifestyle, the style in which everything was done.

“When you have been at a club like Chelsea in the Premier League, for 11 years, it was very hard to adapt to how things were. It isn’t the elite level, let’s put it that way.

“The pitches were poor, stadiums are poor, and the medical facilities were not what I was used to. I’m not saying it’s all the Chinese clubs, some of them are quite professional, but the one I was at, it wasn’t as professional as it should have been. It became tough for me almost straight away.

“I wouldn’t say I regretted it. I had a good time with my teammates, but it was never easy. The standard of football, it’s not even Championship standard. I realised that very quickly.”

The link up with Tony Pulis

So, in January 2019, he made the big leap back into just about as English conditions as he could dream: signing for Tony Pulis at Middlesbrough in the Championship – and, importantly, closer to his family in the home counties.

He made his debut in an FA Cup tie against Newport County.

Pulis had joy when he brought Salif Diao in to Stoke from Liverpool in 2006, lifting the players around him, and he had been desperate to land Mikel in hope of something similar.

“I snuck down to his house last week or the week before, I can’t remember it seems so long ago now, and had a couple of hours with him as soon as I found out he was coming back,” he said. “I had a good chat with him and, like I say, spent a lot of time on it.”

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He added: “He has the quality, the stature, the experience, people around will grow. People grow around because of his personality. He played against my teams quite a few times. He was always one that stood out.

“I think he’s a player’s player, I’m not so sure supporters will ever appreciate what John does as much as his co-players, he’s that type of player.

“He’s been a bonus for us because he’s come on a short term deal and it isn’t fortunes, I’ll tell you that. He’s come to play, to get himself playing and fit and thinks this is the best place for him. He’s had a lot, and I mean a lot of other clubs in this country interested.”

There were 18 games left that season and Boro were pushing for a place in the play-offs.

Mikel played in all 18, scoring a rocket on the final day at Rotherham – but the young side paid the price for losing six straight in a torrid spring and winning five out of the last six only got them to seventh, a point outside the top six.

Pulis loved him, saying: “John is one of those rocks, a building block that you lay the foundations on.

“I’m not surprised about the impact he has had. I spoke to a lot of people before I spoke to John.

“When you have been out of the country for two years and haven’t played competitive football – no disrespect to the Chinese League – then there is always some doubts but everyone I spoke to said he was a wonderful person, very grounded, very down to earth.

“That’s the big issue with players: it is character, character, character. And John has that in his locker.

“People here will be able to say better than me whether there have been players over the years who have turned up just to take the coin.

“John is not going to do that. He isn’t about the money. He just seem to be enjoying it. I was 100 per cent it was the right move.

“It was difficult to convince everyone it was right because we have so many midfield players and I am not sure what the supporters thought of us bringing another one in, but he was never going to be a gamble for me. He was always going to help us.”

Tony Pulis raved about John Obi Mikel’s influence and ability after signing him for Middlesbrough.

Mikel really did enjoy the blood and thunder, hustle and bustle of the Championship where he still somehow managed to create “a luxury of time and space with his unflustered touches and deft short passes”.

“I’ve enjoyed the physicality, the fans being right in front of you, the real English football,” he told the Gazette.

“I missed that in China. Tony has given me the opportunity and I’ve enjoyed it.

“What I expected was to be in the play-offs or automatic promotion. That wasn’t to be but the club, the players, the staff, was exactly what I expected, good staff, good players, good human beings. I’ve had a lovely time here, it’s been amazing.

“I’ve enjoyed it. This (England) is where I want to be, I want to be closer to home, I want to be near my family, so we’ll see what happens. I have a few options here and there, you never know in football.”

A final big shot at glory with Nigeria

It had only been a short-term contract and he immediately switched his focus to a swansong with Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations. He had won that in 2013 and was desperate to get his hands on it again as captain.

Alongside Peter Etebo, he reached the semi-finals but lost 2-1 to Algeria. They won the third-place play-off against Tunisia but Mikel retired from international football.

He had picked up 91 caps for his country between 2005 and 2019, scoring six times.

“At the age of 32 it’s time for me to retire from the national team and let the youth take over, who’ve done an amazing job securing a bronze medal at AFCON 2019,”  he wrote on social media.

A star at Trabzonspor

By that point, Mikel had already agreed a deal quite far away from the home counties – in Turkey with Trabzonspor, who had not won the Super Lig since 1984. Badou Ndiaye joined on loan in January too.

Mikel proved an inspirational figure – a 92.2 per cent pass completion rate was a sign of that unflustered figure again, while always in the right place for interceptions and blocks – as they punched their weight at the top and were on course to be crowned champions when Covid-19 intervened.

Turkey tried to play on while action ground to a halt around the world. Mikel made the call himself and negotiated an end to his two-year contract by mutual consent.

“There is more to life than football,” he wrote on on Instagram. “I do not feel comfortable and don’t want to play football in this situation. Everyone should be home with their families and loved ones in this critical time.”

There were whispers that he had been head hunted by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich for a return to Chelsea in a coaching role.

But he wants to carry on playing.

“Yes, there are interested clubs and England is a strong possibility and why not,” Mikel told BBC Sport Africa last week.

“We are currently in talks with clubs and there is absolutely no hurry. I can only wait to see what happens.”

And now Stoke?

Michael O’Neill has remained coy.

“Well, we’ve had discussions,” he said. “We won’t say any more than that on that at the moment.”

But there is hope and expectation that Mikel will sign a one-year deal in the coming days.

Stoke have had Sam Clucas and Joe Allen playing behind Nick Powell in the middle of the park for most of O’Neill’s time at the helm but Allen has been out with a ruptured Achilles tendon since mid-March. He is in the final stages of recovery but this is a 46-game league season packed into a month shorter than normal.

There is Cousins too and Jordan Thompson, as well as Lasse Sorensen, but Mikel… well, he’s “one of those rocks” isn’t he?

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