When Manchester United signed John Obi Mikel for £4m in late April 2005 and staged a press conference to announce the exciting prospect’s arrival, not many could have predicted what would happen next, as unprecedented twists and turns beckoned.
From secret meetings with Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, to being offered thousands of pounds inside a briefcase, the story of how the Nigerian signed for United but never played for the club is extraordinary.
It was the spring of 2005 and Mikel, 18, playing for Norwegian club Lyn at the time, had attracted attention from some of the world’s biggest clubs with his performances and the Reds were quick to make their interest in signing the defensive midfielder known.
There were not many occasions when Ferguson didn’t get what he wanted in the transfer market, but while Mikel would agree to join United, a bitter legal battle with Chelsea for his signature would soon ensue.
Ultimately Mikel swapped Chelsea for United at the eleventh hour and this is the incredible story of how it happened.
Ahead of the 2003 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, the Nigerian Football Association mistakenly submitted ‘Michael’ as ‘Mikel’ for the tournament in Finland, but Mikel insisted on keeping it, although the wider world would know his name a few years later.
Nigeria failed to get out of their group in that tournament, with Costa Rica and Argentina progressing ahead of the Super Eagles, and while a certain fresh-faced Cesc Fabregas caught the eye with his goals for Spain, scouts were also impressed by Mikel.
Glowing reports from scouts of his displays in Finland earned him admirers from Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal and United. “I had agents promising me everything. One approached me in the hotel with a briefcase full of cash,” Mikel reflected.
“I can’t remember what club he claimed to represent, but I do remember the briefcase. It was crammed with $70,000 (£53,000) and he offered me that to sign some contract before adding: ‘Sign here and you’ll get a lot more’.
“I was tempted. I’d never seen so much money but I told the Nigerian FA secretary who was looking after me. He told me to ignore this agent but promised I would join the best club. After the tournament, I went home to my family and then saw the secretary again.
“That’s when he told me: ‘You’re going to Manchester United. They want you and you’re leaving tomorrow’. My dad was so happy but mum was crying because I was moving abroad at such a young age.”
Ferguson and United arranged for the late, Nigerian captain Isaac Promise to travel with Mikel to Manchester for an initial one-month audition at Carrington before the pair returned to Africa prior to returning for another three-week stint in 2003.
“I trained with the first team. Roy Keane was my bodyguard. Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt always tried to kick me but couldn’t when Roy was there because he’d have killed them. Sir Alex called me Obi Wan (after the Star Wars character),” Mikel recalled.
“He called me into his office one day and said: ‘Obi Wan, do you know what Keane, Scholes and all the senior players have told me? They said you have to sign that boy’. I couldn’t believe it. Here was I, a schoolkid from Africa, training with some of the best in the world.”
“Sir Alex really liked me. He made me feel really comfortable and encouraged me every day,” Mikel added.
“He would call me into his office after training, point at the players’ plush cars in the car park and say: ‘If you work hard, next year you’ll be driving one of those. You are going to play for this club and you are going to be rich’.
“I didn’t know what to say. I was still at school so I didn’t even have an agent. I went home again and Sir Alex used to phone a hotel near our house when he wanted to speak to me.”
With Ferguson expressing his desire to sign Mikel, it seemed the deal was on but the United boss never rang back to advance negotiations and that window of opportunity was quickly seized by agent John Shittu, who told Mikel Chelsea wanted to sign him.
Reminiscent of his time spent trialling with United, Mikel travelled to England with three other Nigerian teenagers for a trial at Mourinho’s Chelsea, looking to put that disappointment of not hearing back from Ferguson behind him to keep his dream alive.
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“I’d heard nothing from United so I agreed to go. I was training with Chelsea’s first team and then we were sent to Ajax Cape Town in South Africa,” Mikel added, although nothing was to come from the Chelsea trial – or so he thought.
Now represented by Shittu, who was searching for a professional contract for his client, it was agreed Mikel would move to Norway, seven months after his Chelsea audition, to train with Lyn Oslo where ex-United player Henning Berg was in charge.
On this occasion, his trial was successful and Mikel, now turning 18, signed a professional contract with Lyn after his trial, but he’d only make six appearances for Berg’s side before Ferguson would board a plane to speak to the player that slipped his net.
“The whole thing was so confusing. I thought I had something with Chelsea but United told me they had been looking for me and then Sir Alex visited me. He said: ‘We want you, we don’t want to lose you again,” Mikel said.
“Before I knew it, a contract had been sent to Lyn Oslo. United were offering me £1.5m for three years. I spoke to my dad, who told me I should just go for it.”
Perhaps wary of Chelsea keenly interested in Mikel, United didn’t waste any time in staging a press conference to announce his arrival at the club in 2005, with Lyn’s director Morgan Andersen claiming the deal was “the biggest transfer ever in Norwegian football”.
“It’s totally fantastic to come to a great club like Manchester United. Not many players my age get that chance,” Mikel said.
So, where did it all go wrong? How did Mikel wear a United shirt and yet never played for the club? “Chelsea saw it on TV and went crazy. I later discovered they had an agreement with Lyn Oslo not to sell me to any other club,” Mikel recalled.
“Then John flew to Oslo to speak to me. My friends were calling me and then I thought, maybe I had been manipulated. All this was very hard for me. I was so young. We flew to London. I remember thinking: ‘I’ve signed for United but now I’m flying to Chelsea!’”
“I had all these people on both sides fighting over me. Agents, managers, strangers, guys handing me papers,” Mikel later said.
“I had Sir Alex Ferguson calling me on the phone on one side. And I had Roman Abramovich on the other side, putting me up in London, hiding me somewhere where only a few people knew where I was. It was really confusing, and I was a kid, you know?”
After speaking to his girlfriend, Mikel was brought to the capital where Chelsea provided his accommodation, looking to protect – or hide – who they viewed to be their player from United.
“I stayed in a house that Chelsea paid for but didn’t kick a ball for any club for a year,” Mikel said, reflecting on the year when the bitter legal battle broke out between United and Chelsea over who had the rights to the player.
In the midst of the legal war between two of England’s giants, there was an 18-year-old player left with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over him, but that period was made easier as Chelsea had signed three of Mikel’s fellow countryman to live with him in the house.
However, finally, after a long period without playing, with the exception of featuring for Nigeria on international duty, Premier League chief Sir Dave Richards intervened, reaching out to Mikel or organise a meeting to decide where his future would lie.
“He [Richards] offered to help me. He told me it was making enemies between the two big clubs. I told him I wanted to play for Chelsea and he said he would help resolve it. Then I had a secret meeting with Mourinho at his house.
“Roman Abramovich organised six cars to get me there. It was like a military operation. I started in one car, then the drivers would talk to each other and suddenly I was dropped off and then picked up by another car.
“Once there, Jose told me: ‘The boss really wants you. I’ll play you and make you what you want to be’. That really helped as there were times when I thought: ‘Have I made the right decision?’.”
Why did Mikel have a change of heart, though? It was actually a selfless act from the then youngster that was behind the United snub.
“I thought about it for a long time. It was the biggest decision of my life. You know what made my mind up? Chelsea had signed three other players from Nigeria along with me,” Mikel said.
“They were staying with me at the house in London to keep me company. Those guys, their lives depended on the decision I was making. If I went to United, they were gone. If I went to Chelsea, they were going to have a career.
“No matter how long it lasted, that was important to me. Just to give them a chance, you know? I chose Chelsea, and four lives changed that day.”
Without knowing that information from Mikel, an anecdote that he only recently revealed, Ferguson was enraged at the decision, understandably feeling aggrieved at the prospect of losing out on a player that United had actually signed.
“I’ll never forget that second meeting with Sir Alex. I’d signed a deal at United but had to tell him: ‘Sorry, I want to play for Chelsea’ “He really liked me but I could see how angry and disappointed he was,” Mikel added.
“Some things he told me made me think about changing my mind but I was thinking about Jose, too. I had these two great managers wanting me and I did not know what to do. Fergie told me: ‘Why would you turn down United? It’s the biggest club in the world.
“You cannot do that. You have to say yes, If it’s money, I can give you what you want’, but it was never about the money. I had Barca waiting to pounce if the legal wrangle couldn’t be sorted, but felt obliged to sign for Chelsea as they’d looked after me.
“I heard nothing from United after my trials but Chelsea looked after me and my family. I had a loyalty to them.
“Sir Alex did shake my hand on one visit to Old Trafford. I remember what he said when asked how it felt to lose me: ‘He is still going to play for me one day.”
The whole legal saga was settled when Chelsea agreed to pay £4m to Lyn Oslo and £12m to United and, for perspective, Mikel cost Mourinho’s side £3m less than the Reds had paid PSV Eindhoven for Ruud van Nistelrooy’s signature just a few years earlier.
Mikel went on to enjoy an outstanding career, winning the Champions League and Europa League, two Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups across his 11 years spent at Chelsea, making 249 appearances at Stamford Bridge before leaving in 2017.
It was rare for a player to turn down United’s advances under Ferguson, but Mikel did and never looked back, although United’s unrivalled success since that unprecedented transfer episode suggests both parties certainly didn’t do too badly after the ordeal.