When the tributes to Ugo Ehiogu started on Friday morning, the most striking thing, after the shock, was the unity of their messages. Ehiogu had been an excellent footballer and was a very good coach but what people really noticed, and what really mattered, was what a great man he was.
That was what the generation of players who played with him said, but also the next generation, who he coached and mentored at Tottenham Hotspur. Kyle Walker-Peters said he was a “father figure” to all of his cohort at Spurs, Shayon Harrison that it had been an “honour” to have been taught by Ehiogu, not just as a player but “as a person”.
Tottenham’s Enfield training base, where Ehiogu took the Under-23 team, was in silent shock on Friday as players and staff struggled to absorb the news. Spurs is where Ehiogu had been working for the last five years. He was a passionate coach who wanted to go on to become a manager, but there was far more to him than just his job. He loved music and debate, a genuine polymath, with a commitment to helping others and causes he believed in. “Whenever he was called upon,” one friend told The Independent, “he was there.”
Ehiogu’s playing career is well known now but his coaching career started in earnest in 2011. He was studying for his Uefa B Licence at Cobham, Chelsea’s training centre. Two of the tutors there were Chris Ramsey and John McDermott, both of whom worked at the Tottenham academy. They were immediately struck by Ehiogu’s presence and intellect.
“He was very studious, he had a thirst for knowledge,” Ramsey tells The Independent. “He was caring, but with a hand of steel as well. He was just everything that you would want. And an unbelievable person, a very, very good person. Empathetic, someone you could have a laugh with, or discuss very intricate subjects with as well.”
Ramsey and McDermott quickly offered Ehiogu the chance to come and work at Spurs, first working with the youngest age-groups. Ehiogu agreed to do it for free. “He came in voluntarily to start with, and that’s the mark of him,” Ramsey says. “He came in to learn.” But Ehiogu impressed with his softly-spoken authority, his leadership, his instinctive understanding of the boys and the challenges of academy football. In the summer of 2014 he was promoted to take the Under-21 side, which became the Under-23s last year.
Ehiogu led that side very well, coaching players like Josh Onomah and Harry Winks who have gone into the Spurs first team. But he always knew that he wanted to be a manager. And there can be little doubt what an excellent manager he would have been. “He had that skill set,” Ramsey says. “He had that presence, people looked up to him, to his stature, his physical stature and his mental stature.”
And yet the story of Ehiogu’s coaching career is only a small part of his post-retirement life. He was a keen supporter of Kick It Out, Show Racism the Red Card and the Football Black List event. Always community minded, as well as keen to improve himself, last year he earned a qualification in corporate governance.
The ‘Effective Board Member’ program is a course to help improve diversity in football boardrooms, by giving ex-players from black and minority ethnic backgrounds a qualification in governance. It took six months of study and work but again Ehiogu impressed those on the course with him, which included Chris Hughton, Marcus Gayle and Darryl Powell. Ehiogu wanted the chance to broaden his career horizons and relished the debates that were part of the course, always engaging, confident and able to think outside the box, while passionate about diversity in sports.
That course helps ex-players get into boardroom jobs and it was clear that Ehiogu would have been a success whichever direction he went in. “Although he enjoyed his career,” says Karl George, who runs the program, “there was a lot more to him than people might imagine.”
And there was always more to Ehiogu than football, as much as he loved it. Before he went full-time at the Spurs academy he hosted ‘The Midweek Sports Show’ on ‘Colourful Radio’ out of their studio in south London. They talked football and music, Ehiogu played his favourite old school British soul and RnB records, and he did it for free. Samantha Johnson hosted the show with him, along with Dan Freedman. “He had time for everybody,” Johnson says. “He just put you at ease. No airs, no graces, no bullshit.”
Ultimately it is the personal rather than the professional tributes that mean the most. Chris Ramsey knew what a good coach Ehiogu was but there was so much more to him than that. “I don’t think anybody had a bad word to say about him, he was an unhateable man” he says. “He was a shining light. Someone you would aspire to be like as a person. You would see him and think, ‘I wouldn’t mind being like him.’”