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John Obi Mikel bows out as one of Chelsea's greatest unsung heroes

While he may not be worthy of a statue outside Stamford Bridge, it is hard to find a bigger unsung hero in ‘s recent history than John Obi Mikel.

On Tuesday Mikel, who featured 372 times in a trophy-laden 11-year stint with the Blues, announced his retirement from football aged 35 following a curtain-closing spell in the Kuwait .

The ex-Nigeria midfielder bows out from the game with an enviable list of honours in the bag for both club and country, though the majority of them came on these shores with Chelsea.

Chelsea cult hero John Obi Mikel has called time on his football career at the age of 35

Mikel (second from left) helped the Blues win a number of major trophies from 2006-17

He scooped up every major honour there was to win at the Bridge, lifting the Premier League twice, the FA Cup three times and also capturing the League Cup, Europa League and Champions League. 

Mikel’s outstanding performance in the 2012 Champions League final – which helped the Blues topple Bayern Munich in their own backyard to become European champions for the first time – is still talked about by supporters to this day.

And incredibly, his story in English football could have been entirely different had he not U-turned on a move to Manchester United to join their Premier League rivals in 2006.

Before that transfer drama, Mikel had left Nigeria’s Plateau United to sign for his first professional club, Norway’s Lyn Fotball, at the age of 16 after impressing at the FIFA U17 World Championships in 2003. 

It was in Norway where the Jos-born star first caught Man United’s eye. 

The Red Devils thought they’d secured a gem after striking a deal with Lyn to bring him to England in January 2006 and even staged a press conference to unveil him as a United player shortly before, with Mikel even donning their home shirt. In the end it proved premature.

Because Chelsea, also keen to get their hands on the youngster, soon snuck up and hijacked United’s deal out of nowhere, eventually negotiating a settlement with their English colleagues and Lyn to sign Mikel following a crazy saga which saw the Blues falsely accused of kidnapping him.

They finally won the race for his signature in June 2006 and, from there, the rest was history.

The Nigerian star snubbed a move to Manchester United when he signed for Chelsea in 2006

Sir Alex Ferguson and Co thought they had signed Mikel from Norwegian club Lyn Fotbal

But he instead headed to Stamford Bridge after the Blues reached a settlement with United

After making his debut in September of that year, Mikel became a first-team regular for Chelsea, featuring 42 times in his first campaign with the club and getting his hands on two trophies – the FA Cup and League Cup – in the process.

His quiet consistency at the heart of midfield, coupled with a superb injury record, is best symbolised by his appearance numbers over the six years after Mourinho’s departure in 2007; under seven different coaches, Mikel ran out at least 35 times every season until the Special One returned.

The same could not be said for his goalscoring tally, despite originally starting his career as a No 10. Having scored twice in his first season for Chelsea, Mikel failed to find the back of the net again until Mourinho’s second tenure in 2013-14.

'I had lots of good games, but given what was at stake, that is my best game for Chelsea,' he told The Athletic last year. 'We were playing on their home ground, in their stadium. It added to the pressure.

'I pretty much did everything that day, defensively and going forward. It's a game I'm proud of. What makes it more special is I saved my best performance for Chelsea's biggest ever game. Not bad, eh?'

After that career-defining moment, Mikel's remaining time at Chelsea never quite reached the same heights. 

Despite making 38 appearances in all competitions, he was an unused substitute in their 2013 Europa League final victory over Benfica. Mourinho then returned that summer, though Mikel's playing time slowly reduced over the next two years. 

He never reached the same heights again, but Mikel departed with icon status cemented

In the Special One's second title-winning season, he featured a mere 18 times.

Another 33 outings came in what proved his final Chelsea campaign, when a crisis-stricken Blues team finished 10th in the Premier League after Guus Hiddink came in to steady Mourinho's sinking ship.

He did not officially depart the Bridge until January 2017, but Mikel's playing days for Chelsea were over at the close of that sorry 2015-16 season, meaning he eventually headed to China somewhat out of the back door.

Regardless, Mikel had already reserved a special place in Blues' hearts years before his low-profile exit. His masterful showing in Munich will live long in the memory.

In the most successful period of Chelsea's 117-year history, John Obi Mikel was the glue that held it all together.