‘We needed someone of his ilk, someone of his stature about him. We sold that to him’
Tony Pulis says the key to keeping John Obi Mikel is to persuade him something big is happening at Boro.
The silk and steel Nigerian schemer is not motivated by money but wants a challenge and to be part of a project that excites him.
And, boss Pulis said, that may not even entirely hinge on promotion to the Premier League.
“I don’t think the key to keeping John is going up,” said Pulis. “I think the key is to show him the potential the club has.
“I think the secret to keeping John at the end of the season is to convince him this is a club going in the right direction.”
Pulis made a personal pilgrimage to see Mikel and sell him the idea of being a key component in a fledgling team.
The multi-medalled former Chelsea man was a free agent after leaving Chinese side Tianjin Teda and was being courted by a host of sides, including Premier League Crystal Palace, Wolfsburg and Roma as well as Championship rivals Aston Villa.
But Pulis and keeper coach Jonathan Gould made a determined sales pitch with the project rather than money as the main plank.
“It was a full day, non-stop, making sure he didn’t go anywhere else or talk to anyone or do anything except stay with me and Gouldy.
“Me and John went down there, went to one of his houses and sat there with him, convinced him this was the ideal place and what he would need to get back to playing his best football.
“We told him all the positive about the club, about our plans and how he could be part of something.”
A second meeting at Rockliffe and seeing the set-up and the area helped seal the deal.
“It is a lovely place for him to get his wife out of London, that helped,” continued Pulis. “To come up here and see the area helped.
“I think they have moved up to Durham now and are all settled. She can get out now with the children and see something different.
“We needed someone of his ilk, someone of his stature about him. We sold that to him. We told him he would be really important.”
Since arriving at Middlesbrough Mikel has flourished on the pitch and made a massive impact behind the scenes, just as Pulis hoped.
And, perhaps more importantly, the Champions League and Premier League winning anchorman is enjoying life at Boro.
“John has come in and done tremendously well for us and he is enjoying his football,” said Pulis.
“And I think he is enjoying the club too, the set-up, the feel around the squad and what we are trying to do here. “He’s been impressed with the number of young players involved in the first team and he is enjoying working with them.
“He has seen the enthusiasm, and for him to be playing with Dael (Fry), (Lewis) Wingy and the likes is great for everyone.
“He has been impressed with the raw talent these kids have got and need to learn off the top professionals like him.
“And I think he has been impressed with the ambition everyone at the club has for the future.
“I think the secret to keeping John here is to convince him we are going in the right direction.
“The gripe I had last year was to say: ‘We will throw everything at it and we will get promoted’. Life is not like that. It never works that way.
“You need to build something that will progressively get better. You need to build it carefully and properly.
“When it comes together it will stay together for a long period. You need to lay the foundations properly.
“John is one of those rocks, a building block that you lay the foundations on.”
Brit Assombalonga celebrates with John Obi Mikel and George Friend
When Mikel arrived after his long sabbatical in China there were some doubts expressed about whether he would be fit enough or motivated enough to excel in the Championship – and whether Boro even needed another central midfielder, especially one who was just topping up his pension pot.
But Pulis insists he knew that Mikel had the character and the quality to shine and to bring the best out of the team.
“I’m not surprised about the impact he has had,” said the boss. “I spoke to a lot of people before I spoke to John.
“When you have been out of the country for two years and haven’t played competitive football – no disrespect to the Chinese League – then there is always some doubts but everyone I spoke to said he was a wonderful person, very grounded, very down to earth.
“That’s the big issue with players: it is character, character, character. And John has that in his locker.
“People here will be able to say better than me whether there have been players over the years who have turned up just to take the coin.
“John is not going to do that. He isn’t about the money. He just seem to be enjoying it. I was 100 per cent it was the right move.
“It was difficult to convince everyone it was right because we have so many midfield players and I am not sure what the supporters thought of us bringing another one in, but he was never going to be a gamble for me. He was always going to help us.”