Poachers and predators

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho says that the Nigerian attacking midfielder, John Obi Mikel, has it in him to be a great player. But what a prolonged and infinitely COMPLEX AFFAIR it was, before he arrived, this season, at Stamford Bridge.

Ken Bates is infuriated with Chelsea, the club he ran so abrasively and defiantly for so many years. They have, in his view, stolen away two of the brightest young teenagers possessed by the club he now owns, Leeds United, offering what he deems a scandalously meagre GBP 200,000 for each of them. A third youngster, who like the others had won England honours at various junior levels, had elected to stay in Leeds.

Tom Taiwo and Michael Woods moved to Stamford Bridge late last season; Daniel Rose decided to stay with Leeds. All three had been with Leeds United since boyhood. Bates is asking for Chelsea to be condignly punished. Indeed Chelsea could well be in trouble, because a three points suspended penalty already hangs over them for tapping up the Arsenal and England left-back, Ashley Cole; for which they and their manager, Jose Mourinho, were heavily fined.

There is, of course, nothing new under the sun, least of all in football. My mind goes back to the early 1950s when Chelsea, like Manchester United, were notorious for poaching youngsters from their local clubs. The teenaged Jimmy Greaves, for example, later to become a prolific, renowned scorer, seemed bound for West Ham United, given his upbringing in the East End of London. But it was Chelsea who used a highly persuasive Scottish scout called Jimmy Thompson, who persuaded Jimmy Greaves to come to Stamford Bridge.

Another hero of that epoch, Bobby Charlton, joined Manchester United as a 15-year-old and remained at Old Trafford for the whole of his famous career. But his relative Jackie Milburn, the idol of Tyneside as the Newcastle United centre forward, assured me that all was set for Bobby to come to Newcastle United and that he had actually been found a job part-time in Kemsley House, publishers of several local and national newspapers. Suddenly, he had gone to Old Trafford. Jackie assured me that Bobby's mother and his own relative, Cissie, had told him, "United offered us GBP 750 and we couldn't refuse". Later, both she and Bobby's older brother, Jackie, denied the story, but why should Jackie Milburn have told me — then a very young journalist who didn't leak the story — anything but the truth?

By the same token, United acquired the precious and powerful left-half, Duncan Edwards, a major star for club and country in his teens, though Duncan, born at Dudley in the West Midlands, would be a natural target for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Would he had gone there, rather than to Old Trafford, he would have escaped death in the horrific Munich Airport crash of February 1958, which wiped out half the Manchester United team.

At the present time, clubs such as Arsenal are busily active in Europe, in quest of teenaged talent. Such, notoriously, as that of Nicolas Anelka, already a first-team striker at Paris Saint-Germain when the Gunners came after him and taking advantage of the anomalies in UEFA and European legislation regarding under-aged players swept him off to Highbury, free gratis and for nothing, to the rage of PSG. In due course, the Gunners sent PSG a somewhat derisory and placatory GBP 500,000, selling him on eventually to Real Madrid for over GBP 20 million.

Then there is the case of Cesc Fabregas, clearly a future star at the age of barely 16, at Barcelona. Again, Arsenal swooped, carrying him away to Highbury for nothing. Of course, he has flourished for Arsenal right from the start and he went on to play for Spain in the 2006 World Cup finals. Just as well, perhaps, that Barca have been able to hang on to the brilliant 19-year-old Argentine winger Lionel Messi, who has been with them since he was a fragile 13-year-old.

In London, not long ago, we had the vexed case of Jermaine Defoe, the striker Sven-Goran Eriksson brought to the 2006 World Cup but, absurdly, sent home by the manager before a ball was kicked. Defoe was discovered by Charlton Athletic of South East London, but in swooped West Ham United, to Charlton's outrage, signing him when he turned 17 on professional forms. Charlton did obtain substantial compensation when they made their official protest, but it was Hammers who got the benefit of Defoe, not only when he played and scored for them, but when they sold him on so profitably to yet a third London club, in Spurs.

Latterly, we have had the vexed case, involving Chelsea yet again, of the superbly precocious Nigerian attacking midfielder, John Obi Mikel, now 19. We can, I think, believe the valuable and volatile Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, when he says that Obi has it in him to be a great player. But what a prolonged and infinitely complex affair it was, before he arrived, this season, at Stamford Bridge. He had originally signed for Lyn Oslo of Norway, who then sold him to Manchester United. Against his wishes, insisted Obi, who had already been on trial at Chelsea where he longed to go. But there seemed little doubt that he had signed, however reluctantly, for Manchester United. After a sustained stand-off, during which Mikel went home to Nigeria and trained with a local club briefly and impressively played for Nigeria in the last African Nations Cup in Egypt, Lyn Oslo and United stood down.

Chelsea paid GBP 6 million to United to take Mikel at last to Stamford Bridge. But why was Mikel signed by Lyn Oslo in the first place even if he didn't and wouldn't play for them? And how come he signed for Manchester United when he says he never wanted to go there? Very young precocious players need protection and it seems pretty clear that he didn't get it, which meant kicking his heels at home in Nigeria for many months.