The transfer window of 2005 was a strange one. Manchester United announced the signing of John Obi Mikel from Lyn for £4m and the player was pictured, beaming, holding up our shirt. After losing out to Chelsea on Arjen Robben the season before, it was good to get one over on the club that looked to outshine us indefinitely following the arrival of Roman Abramovich.
“I am pleased to get the chance to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world,” Mikel said. “I’m looking forward to it. I am surprised that a big club like Manchester United wanted me. I had a contract with Lyn and not with Chelsea. I read about it in the papers, but haven’t heard from them.”
However, he went on to claim that he had received death threats about the potential move.
“I will join Man United in January,” he said. “It’s a dream come true for me. Yes, I don’t have 75 percent of international games and that could affect my chances of getting a work permit but the club officials have assured me they will sort that out when the time comes. I have received messages and phone calls with threats from both Nigeria and England. I feel afraid.”
To cut a long story short, days after the signing was unveiled, Mikel disappeared with his agent John Shittu and a police enquiry began after Lyn claimed he had been kidnapped. Three days later, a video interview with the youngster was all over Sky Sports News. He claimed he never wanted to sign for United and that Chelsea were really his club of choice. Presumably this change of heart had nothing to do with the death threats he’d received…
Mikel went a year without playing any football as the two clubs fought it out and it was eventually resolved when Chelsea forked out £16 million for him, £12 million of that going to us. If you’re interested in the Mikel transfer saga, I wrote about it in more detail at the time.
In Mikel’s first three seasons we won the league every year, as well as beating Chelsea in the Champions League final. He won the Premier League twice in the end, but he would’ve had five if he’d joined United. But whatever.
Still, it’s very rare for a player to reach the stage where they are posing with a shirt, expressing their delight at signing, only for the deal to fall through.
However, our very own Dan James has experienced a similar thing, although without the drama of a kidnapping and death threats.
James was supposed to sign for Leeds on loan in the January 2019 transfer window, with the plan for the deal to be made permanent if they were promoted to the Premier League. But despite the player completing a medical and posing with his new shirt, no.21, Leeds couldn’t reach an agreement with Swansea in the end. It had been reported that a fee of £10m had been agreed upon but the transfer fell through at the last minute. Leeds had offered to pay £1.5m for the loan period but wouldn’t stump up the cash until the summer, while Swansea understandably wanted the money straight away.
“I got to Elland Road about 6pm, did all the pictures with my shirt, all the interviews, because they wanted it to go out in the morning, and then it was strange,” James told the Living The Dream podcast. “It got to about 9pm and I’d signed all the papers and then it was from club-to-club. I had people texting me saying, ‘What’s happening?’ and I literally didn’t know. It wasn’t until 15 minutes to go until I thought, ‘This might not happen now.’ I ended up ringing the chairman [of Swansea] to ask him what’s happening. It was all a bit crazy and then it wasn’t done. I threw my phone. I thought it’s not real. The chief exec of Leeds wasn’t happy at the time, but then it was just a case of driving home. It was a very weird situation and I think it helped me in some ways.”
Former Swansea owner, Huw Jenkins, later discussed what happened and explained why the offer from Leeds didn’t make financial sense for Swansea.
“I recall with Dan James there were six people interfering, trying to make a decision that day,” he told WalesOnline. “I was told a deal was in place for Dan to go to Leeds. It made no sense to me, not for Swansea City financially because there was nothing in it for us. As much as others felt the deal could have been done and we could have got something out of it, to me Dan going up to Leeds at the time, risk injury, us rely on a summer transfer, was wrong. I wasn’t even sure Leeds would pay the loan fee until the summer. I spoke to Graham Potter about it. Remember, part of his mantra was to bring through younger players while making the team competitive. Dan was an important part of that. Graham wanted him to remain until the end of the season and play for Swansea. In playing regularly for us, we felt we would get more value out of any future deal. Not just for the club financially, but for Dan himself. And, of course, he has done really well at Man Utd and also for Wales.”
Leeds missed out and a few months later United stumped up £15m to bring him from Swansea. Wales boss Ryan Giggs had given James his international debut so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reached out to his former teammate to find out about the youngster.
“Ole asked me about him and I just told him that he is a player with plenty of potential,” Giggs told Premier League Productions. “He’s really quick, a great lad, someone who you want in the dressing room, a great character. So, it was a no-brainer really, because he is a talent. From a standing start he is quick and he will beat anyone. It’s just that, like any other young winger, the finishing touches, that final ball, scoring more goals, which he will get better at. I watched him a lot for Swansea last year and he ripped nearly every full-back in that division apart.”
James made his United debut on the opening day of the 2019-20 season and came off the bench to score our final goal as we beat Chelsea 4-0. A visibly emotional James celebrated at the corner flag and was swamped by his teammates.
At the age of just 21, three weeks before he signed for United, his father passed away. While the deal had been in place, you can only imagine how devastating it was for him to be without his dad during such a huge moment in his career.
“Every day, I miss him,” James said a couple of months later. “He always drove me on when he was here. There are times when I am a bit down about it but what he would say is just keep playing and working hard.”
Four games in to his United career, he had three goals to his name, and United fans couldn’t believe the bargain we had on our hands. We’d all seen his highlights from Swansea on YouTube, as his blistering pace saw him leave opponents for dead and he was a handy finisher too, but none of us had expected him to make the start he did.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer stuck with him, starting him in 26 league games, but the goals dried up. After his initial flurry when he burst on to the scene, he didn’t score again until the final game before lockdown as we beat LASK 5-0 in the Europa League. But his pace did ask questions of the opposition and he played the full 90 minutes at the Etihad as we beat rivals Manchester City 2-1.
“I rang my missus and mum afterwards — I was in the toilet crying my eyes out because I was so happy,” he later reflected on that game. “But when you’re that happy you want to be able to share it with the people you love. I couldn’t share that with my dad. He would have been there and I wanted to share it with him and I couldn’t. That was the hardest thing for me. When you’re down you think about it but when you’re at your happiest you do as well because you want to share that with them.”
He ended the season with six assists in the league, just one behind what Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes had provided, with a total of four goals and seven assists in all competitions. It felt like a let down after his brilliant start, with too many of his appearances seeing him have little to no impact on the game, but he had done enough to show some potential.
This season, he’s been used much more sparingly, with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood all ahead of him in pecking order for the wide positions. Yet he’s already matched his goal tally from last season, in just a quarter of the appearances he was afforded last season. In his last seven appearances in all competitions (with only four of them from the start), he has four goals and one assist.
The latest contribution came on Thursday night as United tore apart La Liga’s fifth ranked team Real Sociedad. While United were warned about the potential of David “Maradona” Silva destroying us, or Adnan Januzaj getting revenge against his former club, it turned out to be an easy game, with us claiming four away goals. James enjoyed his best performance for a while and is starting to fulfil his role perfectly.
With no disrespect intended, at this stage in his career, he’s not ready to start most weeks for United as he was doing last season. In the end, his confidence was drained by a string of poor performances because United didn’t have enough alternative options so relied on him too heavily. The weight of expectation put on him after his brilliant start ended up crushing him. But he is bouncing back now and playing his part as a squad player.
It would be unfair to expect him to live up to the legendary status of Denis Irwin and Eric Cantona, players who also got closer to a Leeds shirt than we would like, but he’s showing up and doing his bit for us now. He’s been through a lot, he seems like a sound lad, and I am made up for him.
Who knows what his future holds. He’s still only 23, has only 40 league appearances to his name, and has had crippling off-field trauma to deal with. But if he can continue to take his chance when it’s given to him, then we can’t have any complaints. I’m rooting for him.