Thursday, 25 January 2007

Not Your Average Footballer?

Several months ago the Times carried an interview with Nigel Reo-Coker. It was prior to the cup final when reputations were being forged and our collective star was in the ascendant. If you read it back now it is hard to equate the person in the article to the actions of the same player on and off the pitch over the last six months. I’m not saying he has been badly advised over a whole host of issues, or that he has been unduly influenced by the people and things around him, but clearly something has changed.

The Big Interview: Nigel Reo-Coker
By Paul Kimmage

When the interview ends, Nigel Reo-Coker steps outside on to the pavement with the photographer to have his portrait taken. It is a glorious Thursday evening near his home in Tadworth, Surrey, and he is wearing jeans, a designer (Bathing Ape) T-shirt, unlaced trainers and a baseball cap twisted sideways on his closely shaven head. Tony Finnigan, his friend and manager, watches from across the street. “Is that your Snoop Dogg pose?” Finnigan asks. “
Yeah,” Reo-Coker says, smiling. He’s a footballer. Why should anybody take him seriously? This is how his day begins. The alarm sounds at 7.55am, he steps from his bed, switches on the radio, showers and brushes his teeth. The West Ham training ground at Chadwell Heath takes an hour to reach in his black sports Mercedes via the M25, Dartford Tunnel and A13. A bowl of porridge prepared by Tim, the club’s resident chef, awaits him for breakfast. A physiotherapist with soothing hands will unravel the niggle in his back. The team suits have arrived for next weekend’s FA Cup final in Cardiff and some tailors are standing by to make alterations. He must choose a new pair of sunglasses, and there are shirts and balls to be signed and some Cup final preview interviews to be completed for Sky. Tim cooks a nice piece of cod and some bangers and mash for lunch. His work done for the day, Reo-Coker leaves the training ground and heads for the city, wishing it could be like this all of the time. He is back in his car now, driving towards his aunt’s in Elephant and Castle, south London, with the sunroof open and the window down and his fingers drumming to the rhythm of his favourite song, Dear Mama by Tupac Shakur. “. . . Running from tha police, that’s right Mama catch me — put a whoopin to my backside And even as a crack-fiend, mama, ya always was a black queen, mama I finally understand for a woman it ain’t easy — trying to raise a man.” Was that you in the grey Ford Focus with the sweaty brow stopped alongside him at the traffic light? Maybe you noticed the baseball cap and the young black arm hanging out the window of the fancy black car and shook your head dismissively. And who could blame you? He’s a footballer. Why should anybody take him seriously? But what if you were wrong? What if this guy was an exception? What if Nigel Reo-Coker was the most interesting 21-year-old footballer you had ever met? What if he told you that he believed in true love, went regularly to church, and was a patron of a worthy charity, Hope and Homes for Children? What if his favourite reading wasn’t Loaded or Knees Up Mother Brown but The Art of War by Sun Tzu? What if he told you that he loved deep-sea fishing and that the first thing he does every morning when he steps from his bed is listen to the news? You’d be sceptical, wouldn’t you? You’d be tempted to set him a test. “Okay,” I inquire, dubiously. “So what grabbed your attention from the headlines this morning?” “The votes the BNP will be receiving in the (local) elections,” he says. “I’m very worried about that. I don’t understand how people can say, ‘I’m not a racist’ and vote for the BNP, because they are a far-right-wing party. And the things they are saying to get voters, this fear about ‘the growth of Islam’ is a disgrace. “Some of the candidates that are running for the BNP are convicted criminals and convicted football hooligans. I understand how people are feeling about these asylum seekers who committed crimes and weren’t deported, but it’s just adding fuel to the flames and it’s very worrying.” “That’s not what most 21-year-old footballers worry about,” I observe. “No, that’s true,” he agrees, “but it is worrying. People should really think about how they are going to vote, because if you give people like that power . . . what kind of laws are they going to bring in? How will it reflect on England as a multicultural society?” “You’re a deep thinker,” I say. “I’ve been told that, yeah. Sometimes I think too much, but that’s just the type of person I am. Every action has a reaction, and you have to be careful with your actions and think about what you are doing and how it will affect other people.” “You sound like a natural politician. Is it something you’d consider beyond the game?” “Not for me, no chance, I really can’t see it,” he replies. “There are too many politicians making promises they don’t deliver. They present themselves all high and mighty with no skeletons in their cupboards until the stories about their affairs, or they start lying about their allowances and cheating with their expenses, and I just think . . . No.” “Why not? You could change it. You could be different.” And he fixes me with a smile. “I’m a footballer,” he says. “Who is going to take me seriously?” ONE OF the most popular works of fiction on recent bestseller lists is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It is the story of woman whose husband suffers from a rare condition. His genetic clock periodically resets itself and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future. Nigel Reo-Coker shares a similar affliction. “He was born in this country, so they couldn’t have doctored his birth certificate, but the kid has never been his age,” says Finnigan. “He was 14 but he was never 14; he was 18 but he was never 18; he is 21 but there aren’t many 21-year-olds with the ability to grasp what he grasps. He understands the value of life, he understands the value of money, and when he goes to work he goes to work and to compete to be the best. I just love the kid. I wish all footballers were like him.” Reo-Coker has always broken the mould. He made his first-team debut for Wimbledon at 17 and within two years had become the youngest captain in the history of the Championship. He has captained England Under-21s, is the youngest ever captain to play for West Ham, the youngest captain ever to play in the Premiership, and, if his team beats Liverpool on Saturday, will become the youngest captain ever to lift the FA Cup. “Is that important to you?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “Does it add to it?” “Yes, it adds to it. It can also be a burden, but I’m used to it now. People have always seen me as a natural-born leader, even my close friends. They call me Skip. I have to sort out holidays and anywhere we’re going. It’s always, ‘Come on, Skip, what are we doing?’” “Does anything stand out on the path to the final?” “Before the semi-final against Middlesbrough, (manager) Alan Pardew read us a letter from a fan that was really touching. The fan was saying, ‘Think of us when you’re out there playing. We’re the parents that buy boots for our kids and support them on cold Sunday mornings, but we live our dreams through you’. “It really hit the spot and took me back when I was listening. West Ham have always been seen as the underdogs, the people from the wrong side of the river, and that’s exactly how it was for me. My mum and sisters used to buy boots for me; they couldn’t afford it, but managed to find a way and put me where I am.” For Reo-Coker the wrong side of the tracks was a tiny apartment in Elephant and Castle where he lived with his mother, Agnes-Lucinda, and older sisters Natalie and Vanessa. Born in London, he spent the first six years of his childhood in Sierra Leone, where his father, Ransford, worked as a doctor. In 1990, his parents separated and Agnes-Lucinda returned to England with the children. “My mum really wanted us to get a British education and to spend our teenage and adult years here,” he explains, “but the start was a real struggle. We moved into a dingy one-bedroom apartment in Elephant and Castle and then near the East Street market where we were burgled three times. My mum had to work really, really hard to get us out of there, but we eventually moved to a house in Thornton Heath and it was better from there.” His mother calls him at least once each day and remains the driving force of his life. “I think seeing how hard she had to work, and not having a father figure or role model in my life, definitely made me stronger and more determined to succeed,” he says. “I could have gone the other way and let my life go down the pan and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t have a father’, but I didn’t want to use that as an excuse. That would have been too easy.” And Agnes-Lucinda didn’t do easy. Natalie and Vanessa were put through college and emerged with degrees in law and business, but the boy was a real problem. He was doing well at school, but was talking about being a footballer! What kind of a degree was that? And although she tried her best to dissuade him, he clearly loved the game. One night she watched him waiting for a call from a Fulham scout who had asked for his number. It was the first time a professional club had shown an interest and he almost burst with excitement. He counted every second of the hours that drifted by until finally it rang with a coach from Wimbledon who asked to speak to his mother. Agnes-Lucinda might have ended it right there if she hadn’t been softened by the glint in his eyes. Would she consent to her son playing for Wimbledon on trial? She would. She let her heart rule her head — but Nigel was always wary of the bottom line. “I didn’t want to be the failure of the family,” he explains. “I didn’t want to see my sisters achieve and be successful while I was a failure. I was interested in graphic design and multi-media and knew it would be harder to be successful in football than in industry, but it was just the determination in me. I knew I had to work hard, but I was determined to succeed.”

TONY FINNIGAN can recall vividly the moment he realised that Reo-Coker was a player. When football is your business — Finnigan is managing director of the Wright Wright Wright agency — it pays to keep an ear to the ground, and he had taken a tip from a friend at Wimbledon, Carlton Fairweather, to come and take a look at their new 13-year-old.
“The first time I saw him was a T*tenham game in 1997-98,” Finnigan explains. “The kid was playing against Andre Boucard, a boy wonder, and he was taking the piss out of Nigel. The kid would try to close him down and Boucard would move it; he’d try to tackle him, and he’d dummy him or move it again and was a yard in front with his brain every time. “The thing that stood out, though, was his (Reo-Coker’s) tenacity and appetite to compete. He kept coming back and coming back, trying to compete against this guy who was a yard in front every time. But before the end of the game he got to him. They went for a 50-50 ball and Nigel tackled him so hard that he (Boucard) couldn’t finish the game. “I asked Carlton for his number and made an appointment to see his mother. ‘They’ve all been here looking to sign him’, she said. ‘SFX and all of the big boys, but there’s just one problem’. ‘What’s that?’ I asked. She said, ‘My son needs a guardian, because his father is not around’. I said, ‘Well, I’m prepared to do my best’.” One of Finnigan’s first lessons was to encourage him to make the most of what he did best — his Roy Keane/Patrick Vieira/Steven Gerrard ability to compete from box to box. “I told him, ‘You’re an engine, be an engine’,” Finnigan says. “ ‘Don’t be a wing mirror, don’t be a hubcap, don’t be the rims, be the engine. Nothing works without the engine’.” And over the three years that followed, the engine took off. The senior players at Wimbledon knew it was coming. They listened to him bossing the youth team on the training ground and understood he was a future leader. “I trained with Robbie Earle and Michael Thomas and Andy Roberts and Kenny Cunningham a few times when I was young,” says Reo-Coker, “and they were always very encouraging. ‘Keep doing it, keep working hard’, they’d say. ‘You’re going to be a player’.” The club was in financial freefall as he pushed towards the summit. By the time he had established himself as a first-team regular, the fans were boycotting games over the move to Milton Keynes and there was suddenly nobody to play for. “To dream about becoming a professional footballer and to have to run out at home games with only 30 or 40 people supporting you was heartbreaking,” he says. “There were times when I thought, ‘Why bother? What’s the point?’ But if anything, it made me stronger and the experience was invaluable. “There have been a couple of bad times at West Ham when I’ve thought, ‘Look at what you’ve been through to get here. You used to be playing for a Championship side at home in front of one man and his dog, with 20,000 people against you supporting the away side! You have nothing to lose and nothing to fear’. It really did teach you about the other side of this life — it’s not all glitz and glam and being a celebrity.”

IN JANUARY 2004 he made his debut for West Ham — a 2-1 defeat of Rotherham in front of 34,483 spectators at Upton Park. Most were supporting the home team. None had brought his dog. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The crushing pressure to perform was a new experience.
“There’s having fans and having West Ham fans, and to go from having no fans at all to a 35,000 sell-out who are as passionate and vocal as they can be was daunting. If they’re not happy, they let you know that they’re not happy. It wasn’t until the start of my first full season (seven months later) that I felt comfortable here. And even then it wasn’t easy. “There was so much pressure to get back to the Premiership — you couldn’t feel comfortable enough to go out and express yourself.” In October, after a solid start to the season, Pardew handed him the armband before a home game with Wolves and he became the youngest player to captain West Ham. But within three months his engine wasn’t firing and he was left out for six games as the race for promotion entered its critical phase. “I went through hell during that time. I want to be successful. I want to be remembered. I want the respect of people to say, ‘Yeah, he was a player’. Nothing hurts more than when you are not involved with the team. I sat back and tried to analyse what was happening. I went back to my childhood years and asked myself, ‘Why did I love football so much then? Why was I enjoying it? What was I doing on and off the field to perform?’ And eventually he (Pardew) gave me my chance again and I grabbed it like it was the end of the world. “The first game I came back was for Wigan away. It was a big game. We needed to win. I partnered Hayden Mullins in central midfield and people described it as one of the best games of the season. That’s when we started to get the wins and come together as a team. I haven’t been left out since. We crept into sixth place and just qualified in the playoff. And then we said, ‘Right, we’re going to go all of the way this year’.” At the start of the season not even the most ardent West Ham fan would have interpreted “going all the way” as a top-10 finish in the Premiership, a place in Europe and the first appearance in an FA Cup final for 26 years. But Reo-Coker seems relaxed and calm as the excitement reaches fever pitch. He is not sure if he will make a speech before the game next weekend. “I’m not the type to be in players’ faces and get excited. I try to let my football do the talking, winning tackles and driving forward with the ball and passing and shooting. I think it’s important, being so young, that we don’t get caught up in the occasion and allow it to pass us by. “I’ll probably get the lads together out on the pitch for a few brief words. Something along the lines of ‘No one remembers second place. We have an opportunity to write our names in the history books at West Ham United. We’ve achieved a lot this season, but let’s not leave it there. I wanted to be a footballer to be a legend, and if you want to be a legend, this is a good place to start’.”

HE MAKES an impressive attempt to convert me to Tupac as our interview draws to a close, but I protest that I’m too old. The final question relates to his highlight of the season. He smiles and offers the view that the best may yet unfold. There’s the game against T*tenham this afternoon.
“We’ve got to show T*tenham the respect they deserve, because it’s a very big game for us and another cup final for our fans. It’s been sold out for four months.” How about the announcement of the England squad for Germany? “I’ve heard a few whispers that I could be in the squad of 27, but it’s just rumours, nothing concrete. My holidays are booked, but if I have to cancel them, it would be great. I’d be lying if I told you I won’t be disappointed if I don’t make it. But everyone has their time to shine and I believe that eventually my time will come.” And what footballer hasn’t dreamt of lifting the FA Cup? But his highlight of the season has already been chosen. Five months ago, during the build-up to Christmas, he called at his mum’s one afternoon in Thornton Heath and suggested that they go for a drive. He drove south and into Purley, stopped outside a new house and told her he had a surprise. He presented her with the keys. She started crying. “I can still picture the look on her face when I handed her the keys and will cherish it for the rest of my life. It made me feel so good after all she had done, holding down two jobs so that my sisters could go to college and helping me to become a man.” She has succeeded.

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