My West Ham Scrapbook - Nigel Reo-Coker
After joining the Hammers from Wimbledon in January 2004, Nigel Reo-Coker made 142 outings and wore the captain's armband down West Ham way. As he celebrates his 37th birthday on Friday, he selects six standout moments in Claret and Blue...
HAMMERS NAIL DON
Having been at Wimbledon from the age of 13, I reckoned I was in for a massive change when I moved to Upton Park in January 2004.
But I quickly realised that the Hammers and the Dons stood for very similar things – sure, West Ham United was a bigger club with huge fanbase and a deeper history but they also believed in developing and educating young players, while instilling decent values, too.
I’d joined another people’s club with lots of equally humble individuals around the place.
And making my debut against Rotherham United, it was obvious that Hammers fans shared the same passion and determination for their team to succeed as those that I’d just left – having just witnessed the relegation of the side that was ‘too good to go down’ they’d now placed a heavy weight of expectation on Alan Pardew to win instant promotion.
There were 3,609 fans at National Hockey Stadium in my final home game for Wimbledon but running out at the Boleyn Ground in front of 34,483 supporters to face Rotherham, I sensed those demands at first hand.
Goals from Brian Deane and Christian Dailly helped us to a 2-1 win, while only a goalpost prevented me from netting on my debut.
Ironically, I then scored the first of my eleven Hammers goals against Wimbledon and although we eventually made it to the Play-Offs, we lost to Crystal Palace in the final at the Millennium Stadium after beating Ipswich Town across two pulsating semi-finals.
Hugely disappointed, we left Cardiff knowing there was no margin for error next time around…
As a team in transition, realistically, we hadn’t been ready for the Premier League but now starting 2004/05 afresh, the manager was stamping his own ideas on his own squad, comprising young signings, Academy products and experienced players like treble-winning Teddy Sheringham.
Aged 20, I was still bedding myself in but Pards encouraged me to show the attributes that had persuaded him to sign me, urging: ‘You’re a born leader, stay true to yourself and don’t lose what you’re about.’
It wasn’t easy telling older characters what to do but I’d like to think that I gradually earned their respect.
Constantly tinkering, the manager desperately kept changing too much, too soon but despite struggling for automatic promotion, we still hovered around those Play-Off places.
Sticking two fingers up to our critics, we went on a fantastic run, losing just one of our final ten matches to reach the semi-finals, once again.
I’d later play at Azteca Stadium in the 2015 CONCACAF Champions League final, but Mexico City wouldn’t compare to the electrifying atmosphere of the Boleyn Ground, when we played Ipswich in the first leg.
Our characters and personalities shone through and the Hammers fans in the crowd of 33,723 could see our dedication and determination as we drew 2-2 before winning 2-0 at Portman Road.
Facing a good Preston North End team, we had momentum, belief and a confidence that we weren’t going to make any mistakes in this Millennium Stadium final.
Sure enough, Bobby Zamora’s winner sealed our Premier League return and, as skipper, it was an unbelievable feeling to lift that trophy.
Even today, I get goose-bumps recalling Saturday 13 August 2005, when I played my first-ever Premier League game against Blackburn Rovers.
West Ham United were back in the big time and expectations were high. Down the years, I’d built up so much love and appetite for the game, growing up through the Wimbledon academy before graduating, aged 17, to the first team, where I’d played in front of 3,000 people.
And, now, I hadn’t just arrived in the Premier League as a result of a big-money transfer. Instead I’d got there by helping the Club to win those Championship Play-Offs. It meant so much to have earned my right the hard way.
We kicked-off that 2005/06 campaign with some big characters and big personalities.
Certainly, it was priceless to have Teddy around – aged 39, he was always there on the pitch or out on the training ground helping us youngsters to become better footballers.
With that great mix of youth and experience, we were simply a band of brothers and, with some top-quality, high-calibre players in the squad, it was never a case of just trying to stay up.
We would finish in ninth place, but I still can’t articulate my feelings of that opening Saturday.
Although Andy Todd gave Rovers an interval lead, Teddy levelled before I fired us into the lead with a 20-yarder that flew under Brad Friedel’s angle. Matty Etherington then sealed a 3-1 victory. With three points and my first-ever Premier League goal, too, it really was the stuff of dreams.
Growing up as a kid, I’d dream of playing at the big stadiums against all the big teams.
My first Premier League campaign certainly gave me that opportunity and, on 1 February 2006, I found myself at Highbury, where Arsenal were playing out their last season at their historic home.
Upon getting promoted, Alan Pardew had built a confidence in our dressing room that meant we never had a single ounce of fear, no matter who we played.
We were still learning as a team but – all credit to the manager – wherever we went, we never, ever gave up before the final whistle and truly believed that we could win. And walking out at Highbury, that was no exception.
Looking around the famous old stadium, it was a lot tighter than it ever appeared on television, meaning the crowd of 38,216 were so much closer to the pitch as they watched a dramatic derby unfold.
On 25 minutes, I robbed Sol Campbell in the centre-circle, sprinted clear and slotted past Jens Lehmann to put us ahead before doing a delighted dance of celebration with Bobby Zamora and Marlon Harewood.
Bobby then outmuscled Campbell to double our lead before Thierry Henry pulled one back just before half-time.
Substituted at the interval, poor Sol reportedly went straight home, while I then set up Matty Etherington to make it 3-1.
And although Robert Pires scored a late-consolation, our never-say-die attitude and great team performance meant that we would become the last visiting side ever to win at Highbury.
That unforgettable night is one of my great footballing memories.
GONE IN 60 SECONDS
No-one saw our 2005/06 FA Cup run coming.
It’d just been a case of seeing what could be achieved as our season rolled on but we defeated Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers before beating Middlesbrough in the semi-finals.
For the third year running, we headed back to Cardiff, where we faced reigning UEFA Champions League holders Liverpool, who’d just finished in third-spot.
Wearing the captain’s armband as a badge of honour, on 13 May 2006 – one day before my 22nd birthday – I led us out at the Millennium Stadium for the 125th FA Cup final.
Rarely does today’s younger generation get the opportunity to carry the responsibility and burden of being skipper but I thrived on it, knowing there was a grit and determination about this West Ham United team that could prove the doubters wrong.
Jamie Carragher put through his own-goal and Dean Ashton doubled our lead before Djibril Cissé and Steven Gerrard levelled.
With Paul Konchesky then making it 3-2, I was just a minute or so from lifting the famous old trophy before Gerrard unleashed his famous 35-yard equaliser.
Deep into extra-time, Pepe Reina tipped my header onto a post before we eventually lost 1-3 on penalties.
It’d been another familiar roller-coaster of emotions for our supporters, but we hadn’t been outplayed and we certainly hadn’t been outclassed.
Every West Ham United player can look in the mirror knowing they gave absolutely everything throughout those 120 minutes.
To a man, we did the best we could do and I’m so proud to have played in, arguably, the greatest-ever FA Cup final.
UNITED I STAND
My world had suddenly turned upside-down inside six months and, when table-topping Manchester United arrived in December 2006, I was enduring difficult times.
Struggling in 18th place, Alan Pardew had been sacked, while hidden agendas meant I’d become the scapegoat for our poor start.
A naïve 22-year-old black man, I was fighting lone battles against people’s perceptions and, while the World and football now stand together on racism, back then I was cast as the stereotypical black kid with attitude.
In different times, there was no social media platform upon which I could fight back with the truth.
In Alan Curbishley’s first match in charge, my 75th-minute, close-ranger secured a 1-0 victory in a tremendously tough game. It was a priceless strike for both me and the Club.
Today, I tell youngsters that no matter what you’re going through, even though you’re not seeing it at the time, there’s always light at the end of any tunnel. Stay mentally strong and you’ll overcome things.
By April, we’d also become the first team to beat Arsenal at the Emirates on our way to pulling off the ‘Great Escape’ with a Survival Sunday victory, ironically, at United.
It’d been a horrible journey and, when that final whistle blew on my difficult season, I’d reached the top of the mountain.
We’d stayed up but I wasn’t wanted at West Ham and my move to Villa provided a fresh start.
Turning 37 today, I’m presently enjoying fatherhood and co-commentary work in Florida but nothing’s changed me – I still tell everyone that West Ham United is a fantastic football club.