Back in 2004, a young dynamic midfielder made his debut for West Ham surrounded by a fanfare of excitement and anticipation.
Someone who was both combative and comfortable on the ball. Someone who would go on to become club captain and displayed such leadership – even at that young age – that the national selectors had him captaining the England Youth teams.
And here he is now, 16 years on, retired and often forgotten. You see no, it’s not Mark Noble. It was his predecessor in midfield Nigel Reo Coker! But are the two intrinsically linked?
Nigel Reo Coker’s career began with a bang. Signed in January 2004 from Wimbledon, where at the age of 20 he was already first team captain, he made his debut against Rotherham at the end of January, with his first goal coming in early March – ironically against his previous club – in a thumping 5-0 win.
It wasn’t long before he was made club captain, at the age of 21, by Alan Pardew, making him the youngest captain in the club’s history – younger even than Bobby Moore.
Excitement levels were high for this young talent, when you consider the experience that was already in the squad, such as Repka, Lomas and Sheringham. All of whom had top-level captaincy experience.
Having fallen at the final promotion hurdle the year before, his first full season as captain saw the club go one better, and he lifted the Championship Play Off Trophy on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday after a nail biting 1-0 win over Preston. West Ham were back amongst the big boys, and their blend of experience and youth had found their stride.
The momentum continued throughout the next season as the club returned to the Premier League, with Reo-Coker scoring on an opening day win over Blackburn and adding notable performances away at Arsenal as we became the last team to beat them at Highbury, as well as closing the season out with consecutive goals against Liverpool and West Brom.
All of this served as perfect preparation for another clash with Liverpool, as the league success was replicated in the FA Cup, and West Ham had their third successive excursion along the M4 to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium – this time, for the big one!
Now, you don’t need me to tell you what happened that afternoon but hey, we needn’t worry. A respectable ninth place league finish, and narrowly losing out to the European Champions in one of the best cup finals in living memory was nothing to be ashamed of.
We had a young exciting manager, who had taken us to our first cup final in 25 years, and a young skipper who had been less than a minute from joining the echelons of legendary status alongside Bobby Moore and Billy Bonds as the only captains to have lifted a trophy.
Clearly the leadership team of Pardew and Reo Coker were here for the long haul, this was just the start, and successful times were just around the corner right?
Well, sadly not. Despite the anticipation, a series of off-field distractions, on-field disharmony and a run of 10 defeats in 13 games by the end of November cost Alan Pardew his job.
Not that the manager was the sole object of frustration. Claims were rife that the core of younger players had lost some of their focus, highlighted by Nigel Reo Coker – complete with a posse of fellow younger aged teammates and a Faux American Hip Hop accent – showing off his Florida Pad on the MTV programme Cribs.
Indeed, this was something that was highlighted by the incoming manager, Alan Curbishley.
Citing the issue of the ‘Baby Bentley’ culture around the club, having shared his shock upon arriving at the car park on his first day to see Bentleys, Aston Martins, and particularly Reo Coker’s own Escalade Jeep.
Apparently it came complete with Playstations and Satellite TV, and Curbishley found the attitudes of his new squad quite unbefitting of a team who were fighting for their life in the bottom three.
From being heralded and entrusted with the captaincy by Pardew, he found himself almost instantly criticised by the new boss. It was clear that things were going to change under this new manager.
Starting initially with the results. Any animosity between player and manager was instantly dismissed as in Curbishley’s first game in charge, the not unenviable task of Manchester United, Reo Coker scored the only goal in a 1-0 win as the new manager got the reaction he was after.
Quite what reaction Reo Coker himself was expecting, when he rather unwisely chose to cup his ear to the fans while celebrating the goal, is anyone’s guess, but it seemed to be a slippery slope from there. Indeed, that was to be his last goal for the club.
The result itself was a potential false dawn too, as following on from that game, the next 11 games yielded only three draws, and not a single win.
Drab display after drab display, the club were limping towards relegation unless Curbishley could find something, or someone, who would provide the catalyst to inspire the team.
With fans turning on the team, and in particular the captain, the manager knew he needed to win the fans’ support back. And so it was to another young, fresh faced combative midfielder to whom the manager turned.
Enter Tottenham Hotspur.
It had been two years and seven months since Mark Noble had made his first team debut, aged 17, against Southend in the League Cup, coming on for Luke Chadwick wide on the right.
Yet in that time, only a dozen more first team appearances had been made, ten of which were at the back end of the 04/05 season, a run which earned him a place on the bench for the win at the Millennium Stadium.
Largely overlooked as we returned to the Premier League, Noble was initially sent out on loan to Hull, before starting the 06/07 season shipped out to Ipswich.
Seemingly in Pardew, the same manager who had shown so much faith in a young Reo Coker, Noble had a boss who wasn’t totally convinced in his ability to cut it in the Premier League.
Thankfully, before we ever had to find out, it was instead Pardew who departed the club instead, and when Noble returned to the club, it was Curbishley now at the helm.
But since that opening win against Manchester United in December, the honeymoon had well and truly ended abruptly.
As if a 6-0 New Years Day hammering at Reading hadn’t been bad enough, a relegation threatened West Ham had managed to lose in successive weeks to the side in 20th place (Watford 1-0, and at Curbishley’s old stomping ground to Charlton 4-0) and now faced a local derby with the side at rock bottom.
Having long voiced concerns about the attitudes of the players off the pitch and now on it too, he dropped Nigel Reo Coker from the matchday squad entirely.
Needing to make a statement, and desperately keen to reclaim the support of the fans, he turned to Mark Noble, bringing him straight into the starting XI.
After all, West Ham fans have a long tradition of backing their own, and so the young lad from Canning Town was guaranteed to bring the crowd back on side. To try and reignite the fans’ passion.
And if it was passion he wanted, well that’s certainly what he got. In one of the craziest games in recent memory, Noble opened the scoring only for West Ham to lose in dramatic fashion.
But the tears that accompanied the final whistle showed the fans that the players cared too. In what must be considered the main turning point in the season, Noble’s performance and full-time reaction was somehow the catalyst to a united union that caused a complete refocus from the team.
Reo Coker was brought back in for the next game against Blackburn and as if reinvigorated by the presence of the young man alongside him, they formed a solid backbone that helped the team to seven wins out of nine, culminating in the great escape being achieved at Old Trafford.
And just as it had begun, the manager and captain partnership ended with a 1-0 victory over Manchester United, as just a couple of days later, Reo Coker handed in a transfer request citing a determination to play in Europe, challenge for honours.
Soon he was sold to Aston Villa for £8.5m, claiming his desire to leave was based upon ‘being hung out to dry’ by West Ham.
Within two years, he had had a major bust up with Martin O’Neill, and was released by them in 2011.
A nomadic career then ensured as he went on to play for Bolton, Ipswich, Vancouver, Chivas, Montreal, before ending his playing days at MK Dons.
Tellingly, he never lasted more than a season at each of those clubs. Reo Coker would go on to say, in 2019, that he regretted the way he left the club, and that ‘West Ham was the time of my career’. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as is regret.
In his absence, Mark Noble cemented his position as a key part of the midfield under Curbishley, and has continued to be until this day, under every successive manager.
Becoming club captain in 2015, leading us through the final season at Upton Park and sitting seventh in the all-time club appearances on 507 (to date) it’s fair to say that Noble has become something of an iconic figure at the club, and will probably be regarded as a legend when he does finally retire.
But, how different things may have been. Could it be that the downfall of West Ham’s once great hope, paved the way for another to come through?