Nigel Reo Coker ought to know better. This is the interview he has given to The Times today. What a devious little shit he is.
For once, Nigel Reo-Coker allows his guard to slip. “As I’ve said many times,” he says with a sigh, “my main focus is on West Ham . . .” He stops, turns to Tony Finnigan, his agent, and laughs. Finnigan, deep in text mode on his mobile phone, shakes his head.
Reo-Coker reloads. Take two: “As I’ve said, my main focus is on England Under-21. We’re going to try to win the tournament and that’s all I’m thinking about at the moment. Everything else that happens will take care of itself.”
It is an amusing error, a rare departure from a prepared script. Reo-Coker’s focus is not on West Ham – his critics might point out that it has not been for some time – and he will join the probable exodus from Upton Park this summer.
A move to Aston Villa is likely and could be completed as Reo-Coker, the captain, leads England in the European Under21 Championship finals in the Netherlands. The squad left yesterday for their first group match against the Czech Republic in Arnhem on Monday.
“I truly believe we can win the trophy,” Reo-Coker says. “I’ve been in the under-21s for a while and it’s the best bunch of players I’ve been with. Everyone has played at least half a season in the Premiership and we’ve got so many talented individuals.”
Reo-Coker, 23, sits in the cramped Bellini Bar in The Hospital, a chic maze of function rooms in Covent Garden, Central London. He twiddles absent-mindedly on a computer console and endorses the XBox 5’s, one of the biggest five-a-side football tournaments in Britain, the finals of which are to be held in Birming-ham tomorrow.
Relaxed and softly spoken, he talks dispassionately about the chaos at West Ham last season. It is as if he has left the club already – his transfer request went in last week – and that his stay of more than three years has been swiftly consigned to the past.
Yet the criticism that he and his colleagues attracted, as West Ham lurched from one crisis to another, stings. Reo-Coker, the captain at Upton Park, was at the epicentre of abuse, bracketed among the overpaid underachievers at Upton Park, the “Baby Bentley” brigade.
“Yeah, it did get me down,” Reo-Coker says. “I’m not going to lie, I’m human. I was down, I was depressed, I was hurt. Some individuals went through a lot of personal issues, but we stayed in the Premiership and that meant a lot to the team and the squad. To go through all that at such a young age was priceless and it made me stronger. But it’s done now, it’s history.
Reo-Coker hit rock bottom during the 6-0 defeat away to Reading on New Year’s Day, after which Alan Curbishley, the manager, famously referred to the club’s money-obsessed underperformers. “Yeah, the Baby Bentley Club,” Reo-Coker says tersely. “Well, I’m not a member. I don’t have a Bentley. No comment.
“But that game was probably one of the lowest points of my career. It was such an embarrassment and I just can’t put into words how it felt in the dressing-room. When your own fans sing ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ it’s heartbreaking.”
The bond between Reo-Coker and Curbishley, who succeeded Alan Pardew in December, deteriorated. “How was the relationship?” he is asked. “Leave that one, Nigel,” Finnigan advises. Reo-Coker does not name names, anyway, politely deflecting every potential curve ball.
He is happier talking about potting plants at his home, a newfound love of golf – “though I’m not really the patient type” – and a shared interest in horses with Anton Ferdinand, his soon-to-be former teammate. And the under21 campaign, too.
Reo-Coker has no regrets. “That’s life,” he says. “What happened happened.”
Yet when he returns from the Netherlands he will refocus, probably in the direction of Villa Park. He will not escape the claret and blue that easily.