Nigel Reo-Coker: a rare second chance?

Tonight, in his club’s Europa League play-off against Rapid Vienna, Nigel Reo-Coker was given the captain’s armband. This marked some achievement for a player all-but frozen out by Martin O’Neill, but four years ago the young Englishman would have been looking for far more than the captaincy of an inexperienced Villa side at this stage of his career.

Indeed his career trajectory can be viewed as a lesson to young stars with the world at their feet. Not everyone will be given a second chance.

Reo-Coker in the form of his career at West Ham

Reo-Coker made the step up to the Premier League with consummate ease, playing a big part in West Ham United’s promotion after joining from Wimbledon and bringing his stirring performances to the top flight. After captaining the Irons to a very respectable 9th place in their return to the top division, he was called up as a standby for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England squad ahead of the World Cup in Germany.

And that’s when things started to go downhill.

With the increased media attention that comes with an England call-up, it was perhaps inevitable that the transfer rumours would start flying. Suggestions that Arsenal were interested in the then-22-year-old seemed to distract Reo-Coker, who saw his form and commitment dip in the following campaign. It was intimated that the East London club rejected a bid without consulting their captain, although even now it is impossible to say whether such unconfirmed speculation was the key to what followed.

Here we had something of a chicken and egg situation. Did the smell of a big move cause Reo-Coker to throw his toys out of the pram, or had he merely grown tired of life at Upton Park and decided to jump at even the merest sniff of an exit.

Either way, the exit was not forthcoming, and his form stank of someone waiting for the next chapter in his career to begin. Toothless displays filtered through the whole West Ham team, leading to Alan Pardew’s sacking in December. The heavily-publicised signings of Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez cannot have helped, relegating a number of West Ham’s young-stars to the status of bit-part players, but if Reo-Coker wished to go about his business quietly and professionally he could not have asked for a better opportunity.

Instead he came to epitomise the ‘Baby Bentley culture’ so despised by Pardew’s replacement Alan Curbishley, only finding refuge in the England under-21 squad alongside Ashley Young, Gabby Agbonlahor and Gary Cahill. It was thought, therefore, that a move to Villa Park to join the trio would help rejuvenate Reo-Coker’s career.

A move to Villa worked out far better for Milner

But that was far from the case. He has only managed 73 league appearances for Villa, netting once (against Tottenham in his debut season), and a public fall-out with Martin O’Neill saw him frozen out of the first team for much of the season. His appearance against West Ham last week was his first in Villa colours since January.

In the meantime, Reo-Coker’s England prospects have disintegrated. While former under-21 team-mates Young, James Milner and Joe Hart all got a run-out at Wembley last week, he was watching at home. There may still be time for him to resurrect an international career which looked dead and buried not that long ago, but even if another call-up comes his way there may be a feeling that it has come several years too late.

While a footballer’s career is said to be shorter than most, that is no reason to run before you can walk. Nigel Reo-Coker may well get a second chance. Others will not be so lucky.

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