Looking around West Ham’s new home at the London Stadium, spectators can see banners listing the club’s honours over the years. Th ere’s the 1964 FA Cup, 1965 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1975 FA Cup, 1980 FA Cup – and but for one moment of agonising last-minute brilliance by Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, there would also be one saying 2006 FA Cup.
‘I honestly thought we’d won it,’ Nigel Reo-Coker, West Ham midfi elder and captain on the day, told Blowing Bubbles in an exclusive interview. ‘In the last couple of minutes, with us 3-2 up, I went over to the sidelines and spoke to Alan Pardew and Peter Grant, who told me to stay close to Gerrard as he was the one person on the pitch who could possibly turn things round.
‘But then right at the end, something happened on the right and my instinct was to dash over and try to sort it out and close the ball down. Th at left Gerrard free, and it could only be someone of his quality who could do what he then did – but even then, if you asked him to try that 100 times, he’d probably struggle to do it again.
Sadly for West Ham fans, what Gerrard did manage to do was score an unlikely last-minute equaliser, taking the game to extra time and a penalty shoot-out, won, of course, by Liverpool. Heart-breaking for all involved, not least Reo-Coker, now aged 32 but then just 21, who was denied the chance to join Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds as Irons captains to have lift ed the FA Cup, just 16 turbulent months aft er arriving at the club from Wimbledon.
As the young skipper of such a talented side, Reo-Coker looked set to become a fixture at the club for years to come, but just a year later he was out and on his way to Aston Villa, but only aft er being at the eye of the storm in one of the most turbulent periods in club history. Play-off final loser, play-off final winner, FA Cup runner-up, World Cup stand-by player, scapegoat and eyewitness to the Tevez/ Mascherano affair and the Great Escape – Reo-Coker’s stay at West Ham may only have been a brief one, but it was certainly not short on drama.
Now after a period playing in Major League Soccer, Reo-Coker is back in England and looking for a new challenge, and he told Blowing Bubbles that his time at West Ham had been the making of him as a person and as a footballer.
‘What I went through at West Ham, those are experiences which have set me up for the rest of my footballing career,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing that can happen to me now which I can say would surprise me, after all I went through there.’ Even before Reo-Coker arrived at West Ham in January 2004, he had already clocked up plenty of character-building experience at his first club, Wimbledon.
‘I captained every team I ever played in, from youth team upwards, and I think I was the youngest captain ever in the Championship, at 18 or 19, so taking responsibility was something I’d never shy away from,’ he explained. ‘Growing up in that environment, at such a close-knit family club, surrounded by old school players and having to earn their respect was a superb experience. You had to say what you meant and then do what you say.
That time at Wimbledon was made all the more testing by the club’s precarious situation as it went through the death throes before the move to Milton Keynes, being put into administration – with star attractions like Reo-Coker prominent in the shop window. ‘Even though I was playing in the Championship, several Premier League clubs were interested in me and I even got as far as signing a contract with Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth, but Wimbledon’s administrator pulled the plug on the deal, and then West Ham came in for me.
‘Alan Pardew, who’d seen me when he was managing Reading in the Championship, had just taken over a few months earlier following relegation from the Premier League and must have decided that I had the sort of character and qualities that were needed to get the team back up.
‘The club wasn’t in bad shape when I turned up, it was a few months after relegation and there were still some people who couldn’t believe that they’d come down with such a good team, so it was a bit of a challenge for the club to adapt to the Championship because it’s such an incredibly competitive league. No matter how big a club thinks it is, anyone can beat anyone in that league. It’s very rare for a team to run away with it. It’s not always going to be the prettiest league to watch, but it’s all about getting the job done to make sure you get out.’
This was something Reo-Coker and his team managed to do at the second time of asking after losing the 2004 play-off final to Crystal Palace, before getting it right 12 months later against Preston, to regain their place in the top flight, which led to two of the most dramatic seasons in the club’s history.
‘To me, football’s not a science, it’s about putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and in that time, West Ham built a great team – we had a real mix of characters and wonderful camaraderie,’ Reo-Coker explained. ‘I’m not going to pretend everyone got on, and of course we had some difficult times, but you needed that mix of personalities for everything to work, and what really bound us together was pride in the club we were playing for.
‘I’d been lucky to grow up at a club like Wimbledon, where there was a real respect between the players and the rest of the staff at the club, and it was a very similar set-up at West Ham. ‘What I experienced there was fantastic, and that’s what made my time there so special. The journey we went on in those few years was amazing, and that’s why everyone still thinks of West Ham as the club where I really made my name and established myself.’
Thanks to Gerrard, the Irons’ first season back up in the top flight ended in heartbreak, and the run to the Cup final sowed the seeds of the drama and disappointment that was to occur the following season. ‘In the summer, I was called up as a stand-by player for the England World Cup squad, but the England medics noticed something was up and sent me for a MRI scan. It turned out I’d been playing through the end of the previous season with a back problem and it was only then that the full extent of it became clear.
‘That ended any chance I had of going to the World Cup, and also meant that I didn’t have a proper pre-season with West Ham for the following season, which had a huge impact. ‘There were quite a few factors to what went wrong that second season back in the top flight. Personally I didn’t have a full pre-season, and across the team there was maybe a bit of complacency, which can really affect things.
‘We also had a few new additions to the club, and that can also be a factor and make things difficult – the art of football is getting the right team together.’ Two new arrivals who definitely had an impact on the team were Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, whose hugely controversial stays at the club impacted on everything that happened that season. ‘It wasn’t a case of anyone else there being jealous, but they were all anyone talked about, so it was a big distraction,’ said Reo-Coker.
Seven months after taking his team to the FA Cup final, four months after signing Tevez and Mascherano, and less than a month after the club was taken over by new owners, Pardew found himself out of a job – with, ironically, his final match being a loss to Sam Allardyce’s Bolton.
Exit Pardew, enter Alan Curbishley, and for Reo-Coker, already mounting problems were about to get a lot worse. ‘There was a lot going on at the club at that time, and I’m very proud that we managed to get through it all and ended up staying up at the end of the season, but from a personal point of view, as a 22-year-old, I was getting the blame for a lot of things that happened, and I didn’t get support from people at the club who should have backed me.’
There was one particular incident, or rather phrase, that still bothers Reo-Coker to this day. ‘The manager came out with this phrase the ‘Baby Bentley Brigade’, talking about some of the younger players in the team who were seen as a bit full of themselves, and it really bothered me,’ he said. ‘I wish he’d said who he meant, rather than generalise like that, because it meant all the younger players at the club were being blamed and branded as not caring, and I was the captain.
‘I found it amusing how they could say everything that was wrong at the club was down to me. I was 22 and they were saying I was the dressing room rebel, as if the likes of old pros like Teddy Sheringham would listen to me at that age!’ Despite an initial recovery under Curbishley, West Ham’s problems continued throughout the season, and eventually it fell to Reo-Coker to live up to his captain’s responsibility and speak to the manager.
‘It was tense, and we had a few strong characters who weren’t scared of stepping forward, so we went to talk to the manager about what we felt was going wrong, and fortunately he agreed with our suggestions and changed things in training. Management gave us the opportunity to change things, and we did, and we turned things around.’ That season culminated in the Great Escape at Old Trafford, where Tevez of all players, scored the season-saving winner against Manchester United in what turned out to be his final game before signing for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But it also turned out to be Reo-Coker’s final game in a West Ham shirt too.
‘If I’m honest, I thought that Manchester United game was going to be my last one for West Ham. I didn’t want to go, but some people there didn’t want me at the club so there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to follow my path in life.’ What came next was a move to Aston Villa, and rather than just come out with the usual comments about being happy to be there and looking forward to the new challenge, Reo-Coker spoke up about his feelings about being forced out of West Ham.
‘The experience I had at West Ham was amazing. I arrived as a young man, went through a tough time and came out the other side a grown man, and I didn’t want to leave,’ he explained. ‘I felt like I was being hung out to dry, so that’s why I said it. There’s no way you can blame all that was going on there on a 22-year-old. ‘If anyone wanted to describe what it’s like to play for West Ham, I’d say the key word is honest; you may not be the best player, but fans will appreciate you as long as you try, and they can see it. I wasn’t going to cry about what happened, but I was just being honest with what I said.
‘West Ham was part of my life journey in making me the person I am today; the experiences I had have been priceless, you can’t find many players around the world who’ve been through the experiences I did, leading a team of West Ham’s stature at that age and surviving all that turmoil.’
But rather than a new dawn, Reo-Coker’s time at Villa Park was to be a similarly frustrating experience, seeing him appointed captain before being released at the end of his contract after four years and, he says, only being informed of the news by friends when he was on holiday, rather than by the club directly. ‘The set up at Aston Villa is very similar to West Ham in some ways. There were a lot of changes going on when there when I was there, and if you look at where they are now they’re probably there because of so much change and coming and going in that time, I could see things happening,’ he said.
Next stop was Bolton and it was an event which happened there which was to send Reo-Coker’s career off in an unlikely trajectory. ‘I was on the pitch at White Hart Lane the night Fabrice Muamba collapsed and nearly died, and that really shook me up,’ he said. ‘It’s something you can never imagine going through. This isn’t a dangerous sport, it’s just football so to see someone come so close to death in front of my eyes really put me in a different head space, reassess my priorities, and one of those was to go and play abroad.’
For the last three years, Reo-Coker has been plying his trade in Major League Soccer but anyone who sees that as an easy option for players who are past their best is very much mistaken. ‘Sometimes MLS doesn’t help itself image-wise with some of the players it recruits, but people don’t understand the different mentality in America,’ he said. ‘It’s a totally different environment in every way. Americans always like to have their own way of doing things so anyone who thinks they’ll go over there and have an easy time, they need to know the lifestyle and league is very different.
‘It’s a league that’s still growing and has a way to go to be where it wants to be, but it’s still been a huge learning experience for me. ‘Last season I got to play for Montreal against Club America of Mexico, who are their equivalent of Manchester United, in their North American Champions League final – I played in the Azteca Stadium in front of 110,000 people. That’s something amazing that can never be taken away from me.’
Reo-Coker is now actively looking for a new club back home, and clearly feels he has plenty still to offer the right team. ‘I definitely want to continue playing. I reckon I’ve got four or five good years left in me at a high level, and I’d love to finish things off playing back home,’ he said.
‘A lot’s changed while I’ve been away, I just want the right opportunity to show people what I can do. I’ve had a few conversations. ‘I remember when it was about clubs buying players to win things, now it seems lots of them are more interested in buying young players for re-sale value.
‘There’s not many players around my age who’ve got the experience I have, so I want the right opportunity. ‘There aren’t too many natural born leaders in this generation, certainly not with my experience, and so much of that came from what I went through when I was at West Ham.’