I t’s been ten long years since that great season under Alan Pardew – not only performing well in the Premier League, but also reaching the FA Cup Final, before that goal from Steven Gerrard snatched a famous win away from us. One of the reasons that season was so successful was Nigel Reo-Coker, who had been made the club captain in 2004. Known as the engine room in midfi eld before his acrimonious departure to Aston Villa, he made 120 league appearances, scoring 11 goals. It seemed inconceivable that he wouldn’t be turning out for the England full team one day, having played for the under-21s.
Fast forward ten years, and he’s just been released by Montreal Impact in the MLS. In between, rather than playing at table-topping clubs, he’s taken to the field for Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers and Ipswich Town – hardly teams that set the world alight – before heading over to America. Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps, with hindsight, the seeds were sewn in 2007. West Ham had endured a terrible season under Pardew and increasingly looked odds-on for relegation.
Pardew was sacked aft er a particularly traumatic 4-0 defeat to Bolton, replaced by Alan Curbishley. He not only steered us to safety with an improbable run of wins at the end of the season, but also identifi ed problems within the camp – the so-called ‘Baby Bentley Brigade’, of which Reo-Coker was a part.
Despite rediscovering some form towards the end of that season, in the summer the board ‘failed to reassure him concerning his future at West Ham’ and he requested a transfer. It was at this point that some supporters felt that he was getting too big for his boots, particularly as his performances for much of the previous season had left a lot to be desired. Almost inevitably, an £8.5m move to Aston Villa followed, but even as the transfer was going through, Reo-Coker had slightly more direct words for the West Ham hierarchy.
‘It was an experience which has hardened me but I don’t think it was an experience anyone should be forced to go through, like I was, at the age of 22,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘But it has made me a stronger character and I will now channel that in the right way. If people want to see me as obnoxious or bitter about what went on then that’s their prerogative but my honest opinion was that I was hung out to dry.’ Sadly, his attempts to ‘channel the experience in the right way’ didn’t always work. A bust-up with then-Villa manager Martin O’Neill saw him dropped from the first team in 2009, and after being released from the club two years later, he once again had harsh words for his former employer.
He reportedly found out his services were no longer required whilst on holiday. The next stop on the journey for Reo-Coker was Bolton in July 2011. During his time there, he made 42 appearances and scored three times, but once again, the team struggled during the season before eventually getting relegated. Handily for Reo-Coker, he was able to activate a release clause in his contract, but rather than heading for a table-topping team, he was off to Ipswich Town for a few months before heading across the Atlantic to play.
There’s no doubt that Nigel Reo-Coker was a good player. The problem with him, you felt, was that the other important part of the game, his attitude, went missing when it mattered and that rubs against the grain of supporters’ goodwill. It’s a real pity, really. I’m sure he would say he’s had a successful career, but I wonder how he feels when he looks in the mirror. You feel with him that it’ll always be a case of what might have been – a bit like the FA Cup Final he captained, really.