Mikel was the subject of strong interest from a host of European powerhouses and became one of the hottest prospects in world football after impressing for Nigeria at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland in 2003 and the U-20 World Cup in 2005.
Back then, the Super Eagles player was courted by Manchester United, with Sir Ferguson desperate to add the midfielder to his ranks and cultivate him into one of the finest talents in world football after senior players like Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs had urged him to sign the teenager.
United did sign Mikel after a one-month trial, where he put pen to paper on a provisional deal with the Red Devils. United offered him a £1.5m contract even though he was just 15 and had only just left school but Chelsea’s involvement became a hindrance for the deal to be sealed, given how desperate Roman Abramovich was to build Chelsea into a European superpower with the world’s finest talent.
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After initially speaking to both representatives from United and Chelsea, Mikel made the switch to Norwegian outfit Lyn Oslo where he continued to dazzle – awaiting either of the Premier League giants to get back in touch before later signing for United.
He eventually signed for Chelsea in 2006 after the contract tussle with Manchester United was resolved. The outcome of the controversy had Chelsea paying £4m to his parent club and a further £12m to United in compensation.
In an interview with The Sun, Mikel revealed how an anonymous agent representing an unnamed club tried to persuade him to sign as a youngster with a briefcase full of cash. Hear him:
“I had agents promising me everything. One approached me in the hotel with a briefcase full of cash.
“I can’t remember what club he claimed to represent – but I do remember the briefcase. It was crammed with $70,000 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 in Abuja.
“That’s when he told me: ‘You’re going to 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.”<
On how he turned down Sir Ferguson to sign for Chelsea, Mikel said:
“Sir Alex really liked me. He made me feel really comfortable and encouraged me every day.
“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.”
But Chelsea eventually changed Mikel’s mind and he declined Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer after a ‘military operation’, although the Blues had to pay United a £12m compensation.
”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 Mourinho 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?'” Mikel told the Sun.
While the tussle between the two Premier League rivals was ongoing and preventing Mikel from playing, another big club was waiting in the wings.
“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,” the Super Eagles’ captain revealed.
Mikel finally made his Chelsea debut on the grand stage of the Champions League on September 12, 2006, against Bulgarian club Levski Sofia.
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Mikel who spent nine years with the Blues, went on to win two Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup with the club during his time with them.