Ugo Ehiogu was a man of many labels. He wore them well but none suited him more than that of “gentleman”.
He will rightly be remembered as one of the best English defenders of his generation whose promising coaching career was cruelly ended by Thursday’s cardiac arrest, yet the first thing that struck most people about him was his sheer warmth, courtesy and kindness.
An entry from his Twitter account posted only last month opens a window on the character of the man who was doing his job as coach of Tottenham Hotspur Under-23s when he died. He wrote: “Gave a homeless girl £10 last night in Dalston. She didn’t ask or beg.Random impulsive act from me. Not gona lie. Felt good. #dosomethingkind”.
Ehiogu always knew there was more to life than football and, during a sabbatical between retiring from playing and starting coaching, he established a successful record label, Dirty Hit, combining music management with invariably eloquent radio presenting. The stellar communication skills which briefly served him well behind the microphone had earlier helped build a distinguished central defensive partnership with Gareth Southgate at first Aston Villa and then Middlesbrough and would subsequently inspire a new generation of young players at Spurs.
It is far from inconceivable that Southgate, now managing England, might have eventually found one of the game’s more thoughtful coaches a role at international level. After all, the former England defender was so highly regarded by the Football Association that, four years ago, they invited him to assist Peter Taylor at the Under-20s World Cup, where he mentored Eric Dier.
Ehiogu’s interesting hinterland made it easy for him to engage with young players – they were impressed not just by his powerfully imposing physique, four England caps and three League Cup winners’ medals but Dirty Hit’s responsibility for the emergence of, among other bands, the acclaimed indie outfit The 1975. It meant that those youngsters listened when Ehiogu cautioned them about the pitfalls of fame, the need to look after their money and the importance of fathoming out who their real friends were.
Born in Homerton, east London, he was a product of the famous Senrab boys club, eventually graduating to a £29.50 a week apprentice contract at West Bromwich Albion. It proved the springboard to nine years at Aston Villa where, initially playing alongside Paul McGrath and then inheriting his No5 shirt, he became a cult figure during the course of more than 200 appearances.
on Friday McGrath paid tribute to a “great friend” and “Villa hero”, while Gareth Barry, now at Everton, recalled Ehiogu’s impact on his own, then fledgling, career.
“Ugo had time for everyone, on and off the pitch,” Barry said. “As a young player at Aston Villa he helped me understand what was needed to become a good pro. He always had a lot of time for young players coming through. As a defender, he was fantastic, always so fit, a man mountain and massively underrated – you didn’t see many forwards getting past him with speed or power. I’ll remember him as an all-round nice guy.”
Ehiogu moved on to Middlesbrough where Bryan Robson made him the club’s £8m record signing before his rekindled partnership with Southgate enabled Steve McClaren, Robson’s successor, to take the team to unprecedented heights.
“Ugo was one of our heroes when the club won its only major trophy [the 2004 League Cup],” said Steve Gibson, Middlesbrough’s owner, on Friday. “Ugo and Gareth Southgate were the rock on which Steve McClaren brought the club the best period in its history.”
Mark Schwarzer, Middlesbrough’s goalkeeper at the time, remembers Ehiogu as far more than merely a reassuring defensive gatekeeper. “He was a great guy to be around, so full of life and enthusiastic,” said the Australian. “He was a tremendous person, a tremendous character, a dedicated footballer and very much a family man.”
After Middlesbrough there were increasingly injury-interrupted stints with Leeds United, Rangers and Sheffield United, with Ehiogu’s reputation underscored by the acknowledgement that his England career – spanning the period 1996-2002 – would have produced more than four caps had he not been competing with centre-halves of the calibre of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry.
None of that quintet could remotely be described as a “yes man” and, although a very different personality, Ehiogu wasn’t one either. Like his friend Southgate, he perfected the art of being simultaneously well mannered and thought provokingly challenging; of deconstructing orthodoxies and received wisdoms while retaining that trademark human warmth.
As with Southgate he refused to airbrush sub-standard performances with semantics or meaningless soundbites. If Ehiogu or his team played badly he both acknowledged it and shouldered responsibility for putting things right.
Shortly after joining Tottenham’s coaching staff, a man noted for frequently asking journalists almost as many questions about themselves as they directed at him during interviews pointed out that England lacked a “DNA” or clear identity.
“It’s clear there’s a problem with the game in this country,” he said. “England don’t have a DNA which outlines how they play.”
His determination to develop a coherent football vision of his own saw Ehiogu attend every coaching forum going – only last month he was pictured deep in conversation with Fabio Capello in Nyon.
“I’m devastated for Ugo’s family,” said McClaren, like Capello a former England coach. “What a sad loss he will be to football. Ugo was a real leader and was going to be a very good coach. I only saw him a couple of months ago at a course at St George’s Park, looking fit and healthy, as always. I will remember Ugo as a real warrior on the field, but a gentle giant off it.”
As part of Mauricio Pochettino’s inner circle at White Hart Lane, Ehiogu not only ensured Tottenham’s Under-23s were steeped in the club’s stylistic philosophy but, grasping a much bigger picture, encouraged them to mature into rounded adults.
“Ugo wasn’t just a good footballer,” reflected Gibson of Middlesbrough’s former towering defender. “He was a great man.”