Comment - Ugo Ehiogu's death deprives football of a thoughtful, intelligent man who loved to inspire the new generation
At St George’s Park in November, when Gareth Southgate was preparing his England squad for a World Cup qualifier against Scotland, his old Aston Villa and Middlesbrough team-mate Ugo Ehiogu was just down the corridor at the Football Association headquarters, pursuing his own career.
That day at St George’s Park, Ehiogu was one of around 40 academy coaches convening for a FA course on best practice, all of them kitted out, as is the convention, in the tracksuits of the clubs for whom they worked. Ehiogu was no different in his Tottenham Hotspur colours, but as the most famous former professional of the group by some considerable distance he stood out from the crowd.
He stopped to chat about the new job and the challenges of developing young footballers in the highly-regulated, highly-competitive world of academy football. It had changed since his days as a boy from north-east London on the books of West Bromwich Albion but he was enjoying the job. His fellow centre-back Southgate was trying to secure the England job on a permanent basis at that time and Ehiogu was no less serious about his own career. Like all his fellow coaches, what he really loved was the thrill of being out on the pitch with young footballers willing to learn.
There was nothing about Ehiogu that day which suggested that more than 400 games as a top professional, three League Cup medals and four England caps in any way exempted him from learning the same way as his fellow coaches with much less grand playing careers. He was glad to be at Spurs, a club with an excellent youth programme, and looked very much the contented former professional building a solid coaching career that might take him who knows where.
His death at the age of 44 deprives the game of a thoughtful, intelligent man who was ready to pass on his experience to a younger generation that faces ever greater challenges achieving what he did: that being a career at the top level of English football. Ehiogu won just four caps for England and knee injuries slowed him down but he was still playing at 36 for Sheffield United before he was eventually forced to retire.
By modern standards, the length of his career was impressive, 16 years in the Premier League with Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, a large part of that spent playing alongside Southgate himself. The England manager, two years older than Ehiogu, will feel keenly the death of his old team-mate.
His England career could have been different if Tony Adams had not recovered from injury for Euro ‘96, when Ehiogu was the understudy to the then Arsenal man who was a doubt right up to the start of the tournament. Ehiogu had made his England debut against China that year on the infamous pre-Euros tour to the Far East, scene of the dentist’s chair incident, but eventually did not join his Villa team-mate Southgate in the squad.
Ehiogu’s second cap was in Sven Goran Eriksson’s first game in charge against Spain in 2001. Ehiogu had been 23 when he first played under Terry Venables, and five years later and three England managers on he was part of a much different regime with the Swede. Speaking to Ehiogu about that game in 2011, he said it felt like a new era for the team with him and Chris Powell in the squad and a mood that Eriksson was giving everyone a fresh start.
Ehiogu scored that day against Spain in a 3-0 win at Villa Park, heading in a Frank Lampard corner in front of the Holte End. He won two more caps under Eriksson and had a chance of playing in the 2002 World Cup finals but was injured playing for Middlesbrough in the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal that year and missed out again.
What was telling about Ehiogu was his life outside of football. He was passionate about music and his record label Dirty Hit had signed some very credible acts who have achieved commercial success and critical acclaim. In 2011 he was presenting a show on the station Colourful Radio and had some interest in a football agency. However, in the long-term he saw himself as pursuing a career in coaching.
He had clear ideas about where the game was going wrong with its production of young players and he had the confidence to voice them. You get the feeling that he would have had an excellent career as a fine coach who understood well the ambitions and instincts of a new generation of boys trying to make their way in the game.