Ugo Ehiogu's death imbues Tottenham's FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea with a solemn and significant importance

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
Ehiogu suffered a cardiac arrest at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground: Getty
Ehiogu suffered a cardiac arrest at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground: Getty

Amid all of the sad words about Ugo Ehiogu on Friday, and all the proud tributes towards a fine football figure and man, there was one happier image that really stood out.

It is a photo of the talented young centre-half in an Aston Villa jersey in 1996, aged just 21, with the League Cup trophy in his hand and a glorious smile on his face.

He is surrounded by both jubilant fans and teammates, many of whom would no doubt want to remember him exactly like this, even as they can’t believe he’s gone. It is one of the many positive ways he will be remembered.

Ehiogu with the League Cup in 1996 (Getty)
Ehiogu with the League Cup in 1996 (Getty)

It is also the added poignancy to tragically premature passings like that of the Villa and Middlesbrough legend.

They render football totally unimportant, yet at the exact same time also remind us how important football can be in a different way; how it enriches lives; how it offers the individual moments that people cherish.

Ehiogu was highly respected as a very rounded family man who had interests far beyond the game, as illustrated by both his social interests and music management with his record label Dirty Hit, but moments like winning that League Cup are still the kind he lived his career for.

This is what Chelsea and especially Tottenham Hotspur are now playing for, because it is much the same for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final.

That match at Wembley between the two London clubs was justifiably being built up as the most consequential game of the season and, while its various storylines are obviously completely inconsequential now, moments of actual tragedy like this then lend the game a different type of importance; a more solemn and significant importance.

This is now a game for Ehiogu. That’s what this match is now about, to just play a football match for a man who so loved football.

Ehiogu was incredibly popular at White Hart Lane (Getty)
Ehiogu was incredibly popular at White Hart Lane (Getty)

That is of course not to place any unfair pressure on the players - especially those from a grieving White Hart Lane - to put in a performance to mark the memory of the Spurs coach. That is not with this is about.

It is merely to recognise that, above anything else, this is an occasion to pay respect to Ehiogu; to offer at least some consolation to his grieving family by showing them how deeply loved loved he was.

This was something that Antonio Conte very respectfully reminded everyone on the eve of the semi-final. It would be difficult to find a man more obsessed with winning than the Italian but he very gracefully emphasised how none of it actually matters by beginning his pre-match press conference with a tribute to Ehiogu.

“I want to send my condolences to Ugo’s family,” the Chelsea manager began.

“When this type of situation happens, the football is not important. It’s not easy to speak about this situation, because this situation hits everyone of us and, for sure, tomorrow there will be a strange atmosphere.

“It’s a pity because he was very young, only 44, and a former player, and when these types of situations happen you start to think of a lot of things… We are very sad for this. We can remember him tomorrow and I think this is the minimum for us, for Tottenham and for the fans.”

Ugo Ehiogu; 1972 – 2017 (Getty)
Ugo Ehiogu; 1972 – 2017 (Getty)

Mauricio Pochettino’s press conference took place before the tragic news, although that’s probably just as well, given it’s a moment of such privacy for the club where Ehiogu worked.

It’s difficult to know what they must be thinking at a time like this, and impossible not to have sympathy for the squad and staff preparing for a match in a situation like this.

They will no doubt want to win the trophy for him and, if they do, it will be a fitting tribute. If they don’t, it won’t matter because Saturday’s occasion will be tribute enough.

What matters is the memory of Ehiogu, and just playing the game in the spirit he always did.

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