Ed. note: A few days ago, a club legend moved on. A few days can be an eternity in football, but let's take a moment with the fixture list clearing up a bit once again, and say goodbye properly courtesy of this wonderful FanPost. Farewell, Mikel!
In football, just like in life, all that is good must come to an end. Nothing can last forever. And so it has been for Chelsea’s golden generation. One at a time, filing off stage. A bow, a pirouette, a flourish. Or just a quiet exit. With an open letter.
Like for many Chelsea fans, that open letter brought tears to my eyes. Not Lamps, not Ash, not Essien, not Cech, not one brought a tear to my eye the way that letter did. Lamps was old, so was Ash, they’d done their service and it made sense for them to leave. It was like watching your pet grow old and accepting its fate. Conversely, someone like Essien or Robben were stolen away from us. One by injuries, the other by ... some combination of Madrid and money. Like losing a pet in an accident.
And then there’s Mikel. The turtle in the corner, the one you kinda forgot about until that time you almost flushed it down the toilet by accident, immediately regretted it and vowed to never do it again. Because you realised the turtle was the one thing keeping it all together. I don’t even know where my analogy is going at this point. But Mikel was always just ... there. The one guarantee. A trusty piece of furniture. (Okay so I’ve just compared Mikel to a turtle and a couch, this can’t be good right?)
Obviously he wasn’t going to retire a Chelsea player, obviously everyone leaves. But with perhaps the exception of John Terry, I don’t recall another teenager coming of age and leaving a fully grown mature adult like this. (Huth, Glen Johnson, Sturridge, they all left and realised their potential somewhere else.) Remember how petulant Mikel used to be? For the first four years, I only saw him as a liability, until he became the linchpin for Ancelotti’s triumphant team of 09/10. And I mean linchpin. Drogs – Malouda – Anelka – Lamps – Ballack – Deco – 30% of Michael Essien ... and Mikel. Holding the fort. Someone had to with all that offensive talent. One of the keys to our Champions league run in 2012. We don't get past Barcelona without him shielding, or manage that final in Munich. Mikel was there. Always there.
And now he’s not. He was a player that divided opinion more than any other player in that golden generation. He passes sideways. He passes backwards. He has no pace. He passes sideways and backwards and has no pace. But then you remember his touch, his strength on the ball, his vision. And you remember we watched him develop it all in front of our eyes. One of my enduring memories of Mikel will always be him receiving a pass in front of our back four, using his body to shield it and turn away from a pressing attacker and releasing a simple pass forward. But I’ll also never forget the first three or so years, when I’d fret every time he touched the ball near our own box, knowing he was going to take a risk, and knowing he might gift the opposition an opportunity. Mikel started as a liability and finished as an insurance policy.
And then of course, there’s that alternate timeline. The one where stodgy Mourinho unleashed the inner Jay-Jay Okocha, and started playing Mikel in an advanced role. We’ve all seen glimpses over the years, especially with Nigeria, but also occasionally with Chelsea. He always had that in his locker. A certain backheel against Everton in our title winning campaign two years ago springs to mind. Or perhaps the countless laserbeam passes to Nicolas Anelka (seriously David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas, eat your heart out). I honestly still couldn’t tell you what his best position is. I think it’s a deep-lying defensive mid-playmaker? But you just don’t make players like him any more. And now he’s gone, our sweet prince.
He was the last piece of what seemed like an inexorable tide of West African players forming the original crew — Drogba, Essien, Kalou, Mikel — that launched Chelsea’s global brand in Africa. I really do believe that without those four, Chelsea wouldn’t be the global superpower they are today. They made Chelsea resonate with Africans in a way that Manchester United was never able to (thanks Fergie for rarely signing African players given your distrust of the AFCON). And now he’s gone, our sweet prince.
We all saw it coming, several years down the line. Mikel could have left Chelsea in 2011 and we wouldn’t have been surprised. Because unlike a Lampard, an Ashley Cole, an Essien, a Drogba, a JT or a Cech, he wasn’t undroppable. He was essential, but not undroppable. He had seasons where he was undroppable — Ancelotti, for example. But unlike the others, he was always useful as a squad player, kind of like a Paulo Ferreira in a way, albeit much more skilled and valuable on the pitch. Every great team needs great players willing to sacrifice. And Mikel did, for ten years. He sacrificed his attacking instincts when he first joined the team as a teenager. He gave ten years of his playing career to the Blues. Some seasons he’d barely play, some seasons he’d start every game. He never complained, he just got down and worked. He’s been a great servant to the club, and we will all miss him.
Thank you, Mikel John Obi.