The death of Ugo Ehiogu in the early hours of Friday morning following a cardiac arrest has plunged the footballing world into a state of sadness. The Tottenham Hotspur Under-23 coach had been working on one of the club’s training pitches on Thursday morning when he collapsed. Even as the tributes poured in, it was impossible to make sense of the loss of a universally popular and ostensibly fit 44-year-old.
The passing of the former England defender, whose playing career was defined by long spells at Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, has cast a shadow over Tottenham’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday – a tie between the top two clubs in the Premier League and which has so much riding on it.
Tottenham announced that the players from both teams would wear black armbands and there will be a minute’s applause prior to kick-off. The Football Association has displayed an image of Ehiogu outside the national stadium while Tottenham have postponed all academy matches over the weekend and Monday’s under-23 fixture at Manchester United.
There had been panicked scenes at the club’s Enfield training centre at 11.30am on Thursday, when their medics rushed to treat the stricken Ehiogu, and an ambulance and a medical-assistance car were scrambled out to him. The ambulance took Ehiogu to hospital about 20 minutes later. The concern had been etched across the faces of every member of Tottenham’s staff and their emotions turned to devastation after their worst fears were confirmed yesterday.
Ehiogu had spent time working with the Spurs youth teams during the 2012‑13 and 2013‑14 seasons while he completed his coaching badges, and he became the full-time coach of the under-21s – later reclassified as the under-23s – in July 2014.
He was a fundamental part of their closely-knit youth set-up, working under the head of coaching and player development, John McDermott. Like everybody else, McDermott attempted to articulate his sense of emptiness at Ehiogu’s death. “Words cannot express the shock and sadness that we all feel at the club,” McDermott said. “Ugo’s presence will be irreplaceable. Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his wife, Gemma, and his family.”
The tributes also came from the top of the club with the chairman, Daniel Levy, and the manager, Mauricio Pochettino, both mentioning how central Ehiogu had been to Tottenham.
Levy said: “This is an incredibly sad day for the club and a tragic loss of a talented member of our Spurs family. Ugo was an extremely popular and respected academy coach, a tremendous influence on our younger players, both in training and away from the pitch, and he will be greatly missed. Everyone’s thoughts are with Ugo’s family at this difficult time.”
Pochettino added: “Ugo was a lovely man and we had a very good relationship from the first day we [my coaching team] arrived at the club. He was always a person who helped us a lot and we will miss him greatly. I send all my love to his family and friends at such a difficult time. It’s a huge loss both personally and for all the Tottenham Hotspur family.”
Born in Homerton, east London, Ehiogu turned professional with West Bromwich Albion before he represented Villa and Middlesbrough with distinction. He is an authentic hero at both clubs and will be recognised as such in the tributes that they have planned. Ehiogu also played for Leeds United, Rangers and Sheffield United. He won four caps for England, too, scoring once as a substitute in the win over Spain in 2001, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s first match in charge.
A host of Tottenham’s first-team players also paid their personal tributes with the academy product, Harry Kane, describing him as an “inspiration to the younger players – he’d been there and done it at the very highest level”. Josh Onomah, another academy product, said Ehiogu was “way more than just a coach, [he was] a father figure as well.”
Many more of the club’s academy players tweeted their love and gratitude, with Shayon Harrison saying that Ehiogu was “one of the most genuine and caring people I’ve ever met.” Anton Walkes wrote: “I’ll never be able to thank you enough for all the time you invested in me to become a better footballer and a man.”
Tottenham’s official website also carried a warm tribute. “For the last three years Ugo selflessly, diligently and enthusiastically played a key role in the development of our young players.
“Not once did he boast of his glittering playing career. Working at a level very different to that at which he’d played and excelled, he carried himself with the utmost humility, was a good and willing listener to those inside and outside of our coaching and playing staff and took personal pride in helping each individual player to improve – no detail overlooked during countless hours of training and guidance.
“He stuck by his players week in, week out, no matter the results on the field and when it was time to go home, he’d turn away from the exit door and instead go and lend his experience to coaching sessions for our younger age groups.”