Legendary football agent and manager, John Olatunji Shittu, has opened up on his player, Nigerian international and Chelsea defensive midfielder, John Mikel Obi, giving an insight into the making of the star, the struggles and challenges that trailed the process, his role in the Super Eagles of Nigeria and his career future.
In a world exclusive interview with www.sportstalkafrica.com, Shittu submitted that Mikel has done well, professionally, and still has many more years to give in club and international football.
Shittu who partners with Jerome Anderson’s SEM and Dan Fletcher, foremost sports agents in the UK, was delighted that Mikel has grown to be captain of Team Nigeria to the just concluded Rio 2016 Olympic Games and also led the Nigerian u23 football team, the Dream Team IV, to win the only medal for Nigeria at the Olympiad.
“I am very delighted for him and for the team, especially for what they had to go through and then went far to achieve what they have achieved. I think they have done the country proud and I am proud of my boy as captain of the team that won the only bronze medal for Nigeria and as captain of Team Nigeria as a whole.”
Shittu started managing Mikel when he was about 12 years old, taking him to Manchester United academy and then to LYN, Oslo, before signing him to Chelsea but he laments that Mikel is the only one still playing top football at the moment out of the four young talents he took with him at the time.
According to him, besides his skillfulness, Mikel’s added character of humility to listen to advice, adherence to instruction in team play have contributed greatly to his success.
“In life, everything is a risk. I saw something different when I started working with him and the other players. I am not so proud to say that out of the four of them he happens to be the only one at the moment still playing at the top. I would have wanted the same thing for everyone of them but the fingers are not equal.”
Players under Shittu’s stable included Chinedu Obasi, Osaac Promise, Onyekachi Apam, Efe Ambrose among others. While Ambrose still features with Celtic of Scotland, Mikel remains Shittu’s top football brand.
“The fact is that he listens to me a lot. We do have our challenges but he listens to me most of the time. Our relationship is more like father and son, like brothers. It is more than player and manager. I know about most of the things he does. We talk about them. It doesn’t mean that everything I say is right but being an elderly figure and with my experience in the game, he listens and I believe that has helped him a lot to be where he is today and to continue to achieve till now.”
Ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Nigeria sports ministry announced Mikel as captain of Team Nigeria, against expectations, given the presence of older athletes who have been to the Olympics a number of times and there were apprehensions about Mikel’s capacity to function in that role. It was also beyond expectation that the Dream Team coach, Samson Siasia, would make Mikel his captain given that Mikel rejected to join his Beijing 2008 Olympic campaign and given also a couple of disagreements they have had in the Super Eagles. Shittu says in all that Mikel was misunderstood and stood by him to emerge the stronger for it.
“I think most of the time, the situation and circumstances were misunderstood. The young man himself, most of the time, was misunderstood. That is why I always stand by him, speak to the few people I could speak to at the time and make them understand who Mikel is. When you get to know Mikel as a person, you will see that he is a very lovely young man and people have had the chance and given him the opportunity to open up to them always love him. He is not naive but he is a very shy person. You only need to understand him.”
“The challenge of this Olympics was very Herculean for him but at the end of the day, with prayers, he has done well. As captain of Team Nigeria, he had never met some of the athletes and officials but I kept telling him not to worry, to be calm. Some people are born with leadership qualities but some learn through the process and even become better than those born with it. He took that. He has some of the qualities in him and he took everything upon himself.”
“I say well done to him. He has done me proud, he has done his parents, his family proud and I hope Nigerians will accept that he has done the country proud as well.”
“Because of the hard work we have done, both of us together, and a few other people in his team, you can see that the leadership quality in him is now coming out. All that is needed is just for him to be encouraged.”
A usual point of argument about Mikel’s football career is his role in Chelsea. Many Nigerians discovered and loved him playing in the attacking midfield of the national u20 to the CAF and FIFA junior championships in 2005 but he turned out to be playing in the defensive midfield for Chelsea leading many Nigerian coaches to keep playing him in that position. Shittu explains the true situation.
“We have to leave it to the coaches at any time and what they want to do with him. As at the time we took the decision to take him to Chelsea and up till now, I think we made the right decision. He too actually wanted to go to Chelsea. By now, looking back at Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, how many players like him have really made it up till now? We are talking about 11 to 12 years now and Mikel has remained consistent.
“The fact is that Jose (Mourinho) looked at him and decided which position was best to play him. It is not about sentiments. With all the legal fees, the about 16 million and other commitments, they probably spent about 27 million to get him. Why would they want to jeopardise that by playing him out of effectiveness? Jose thought that was the best position for him and for the few games I have watched him play up front, I think he does not have the pace to come back. When you play in England, you have to be a kind of box to box midfielder. He does not have the capacity to do that. That is what Jose saw at the time and at a time he was probably number one to three best at that position in the world.
“Acquiring that more skill and talent in that position, he is now more matured. It has given him more experience. Naturally, he has the ability to play in the offensive, he has eyes for goal but if he was playing in France or Italy it would have been okay because the game is slower there, but in the EPL that the game is faster, the position for him is still defensive midfield unless the coach is ready to have a luxury player upfront and who might not have to come back to defend.”
“But playing for a team like Chelsea which is actually the Real Madrid of the EPL, where everybody comes with arrogance, with attitude, and the fact that he can survive under about seven to eight coaches and still remain consistent, we have to give it to him. Professionally, he has done well for himself. Financially, he has done well for himself as well and he still has more years to go. We just pray and hope for him that he still keeps his feet on the ground and keep doing well for himself and for the country.”
The signing of Mikel to Chelsea did not come as an easy call as many clubs, including Manchester United and Lyn, Oslo, laid claim to the player, contesting Shittu’s right of ownership to sell him to the London club. The matter took parties to courts in Europe, to FIFA and to arbitration and at the end Shittu’s claim was proved right and true, albeit, with huge pains. Shittu reflects on those days.
“People who know me well know that I like to fight for the right reasons. Life is about challenges and you have to take it on. I was calm and with prayers, my wife, who unfortunately has passed, who supported me wholeheartedly, my family and a lot of people who supported me, I was focused on what I wanted to achieve and that was what mattered to me at the time.”
“We went through three to four ministers, there were threats here and there, with the mighty of Manchester United but I remained focused because I knew what I was doing was right. I knew my signature was forged so I went on to do what I had to do and, fortunately for me, everything worked and the guy (Morgan Anderson, director at Lyn, Oslo) got a jail sentence for forging my signature.”
“No one believed me then when I said that was not my signature, I didn’t sign it, this gut didn’t do the right thing. In the Nigerian way, everybody just kept saying things about me, even when most of them didn’t know me. But I thank God that at the end my fight was justified and I am happy that I am the pioneer of everything going on in Nigeria today, in terms of proper players transfer.”
“After the fight we have seen so many people coming up as agents today. They think it is just about the money but I am still happy that, now, a Nigerian player can go for a million or two million dollars. There are a few players that have left this shores from the local level and the clubs got so much money coming to them. The difference is whether the money comes back or not, I don’t know, but I am just happy that what I started is really going well for the country in football.”