Ahead of the Premier League season, AmericanGambler.com spoke to former West Ham and Aston Villa star, Nigel Reo-Coker. The former England U21 player gave his thoughts on why Manchester United need too make his former team-mate Ashley Young captain and why former West Ham team-mate Michael Carrick was a truly unique talent.
Reo-Coker also said that The Hammers should allow Hernandez to move on, but why Villa need to build their team around their captain and boyhood Villa fan, Jack Grealish.
You signed for West Ham in 2003, where you had the chance to play with Michael Carrick. Just how good was he and what separated him as a player?
I think Michael is a very good player, definitely. His style of play was what made him different. In that time period as a centre midfielder, you were expected to be a box-to-box midfielder, be able to do everything, that was what was required of being a centre midfielder those days. Michael wasn’t really a box-to-box midfielder but what he could do with a football, his passing ability, to retain possession and make passes was what separated him and made him unique.
It was kind of the start of the change of the centre midfielder that we see in this day and age, where midfield positions aren’t really what they used to be as a box-to-box player. Most teams now play with three in midfield with one specialised in sitting and one specialised in attacking with more specific positions than being able to do everything.
Could you tell that he was destined to achieve big things in the game, as he went on to achieve with Manchester United?
I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised at all, he’s a very good player and the quality that he had was something unique and fantastic. I think to a lot of people there, he didn’t get the credit that he deserves. He wasn’t seen as a box-to-box Steven Gerrard, but he was a very influential player within a big team.
Following Carrick’s departure, we saw the introduction of young Mark Noble into the squad. Just how instrumental has he been to West Ham?
Did his passion for the club and the badge shine through to all of the other players in the dressing room?
I think that period at West Ham was fantastic. In that dressing room alone it was very unique with the characters alone, which I think helped Mark a lot, and that generation of footballer doesn’t really exist anymore. There was great camaraderie, great team spirit, the likes of Zamora, myself, Marlon Harewood, Teddy Sheringham, James Collins, Danny Gabbidon; we had a big dressing room with a lot of characters and personalities.
I think that definitely helped Mark Noble a lot to where he is this day, and it’s always great when you have someone whose family, his friends and himself are West Ham fans and you could always tell what it means to him to play for the club. I think being in that generation that he came through in did a lot for him to be strong as a character and as a person and took him a long way in his career.
What did it mean to you to be made the captain of West Ham? Was that the proudest moment in your career, being made captain?
Yes it was a proud moment. Obviously I’m from South London but when you speak to people, they seem to remember me from my career at West Ham and what we did; the FA Cup final and certain things like that. I was never someone that went out of my way to get the captain’s armband. From a young age I was always told by the great coaches that I had to always be true to myself, to be who I am, and no matter how bad I ‘m feeling on a day in training, I still have to be vocal and be the person that I am.
I’ve always been vocal from a young age and before I was captain of West Ham, I was captain of Wimbledon at the age of 19 so I’ve always captained every side from Wimbledon U15s all the way through, so it was something that was natural to me and it was a great honour when Alan Pardew made me captain. It wasn’t something that I was sitting on and dwelling on, it was just an armband. I’ve always believed that you don’t need an armband to be a true leader.
Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano joined the club in bizarre circumstances with the players being owned by super-agent Kia Joorabchian; what did the players make of the situation at the time?
Honestly, the players didn’t really care. It wasn’t something that something that any of us had any control over, or anything we could do.
We don’t write the rules and at that time, for us as players, all we concentrated on was playing football. We wanted to play, we wanted to do well, we wanted to win.
That situation, when all of that happened, I don’t think the players even knew the rule, what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed.
Again, it wasn’t something that we paid attention to, we found out just like fans did and other people in the public found out the same way, where didn’t really have a clue, but we didn’t focus or dwell on it. For us, it was whether they were good players, and how well they would do for us and for the team.
Just how good was Mascherano? Did you see him going on to be so pivotal to Liverpool? And would. You have seen him as a player good enough to win it all with Barcelona?
It’s a funny one that one, because he was a good player, but when I trained with him once or twice at West Ham he played centre midfield. That was his first time in Europe and he found it hard in a 4-4-2, he played a few games with me and I think it was too athletic and too dynamic for him at that time. It goes back to what I said with the Michael Carrick scenario; at that time playing centre midfield, playing the real box-to-box role, you did have to be dynamic and athletic and I think he did struggle.
He got the move to Liverpool and obviously he played in a five (in midfield), and for him he has to play in a five. It works better for him to have two other midfielders. It goes back to the time period and how football has changed from being 4-4-2 and two box-to-box midfielders with one being able to attack more-so than the other one, to a five in midfield with one who sits and does the Gatusso role, breaking up play and giving it simple, so I think that’s why he thrived and survived. With someone like Mascherano, he had to be in a five to be able to contribute in a game.
I’m not taking anything away from him because he was a very good player, but I think that is what helped him a lot with the success that he brought at Liverpool, and then you look at his transition to Barcelona, it was a very similar position and then went to centre back. I didn’t honestly expect him to go that far but he has done very well in his career; he has had a fantastic career.
What was Carlos Tevez like as a character?
I got along very well with Carlos. He was a one off – different and you had to say that to the people in the dressing room as well. He was a free spirit, he says what he means and he means what he says, and just a very honest guy. Someone that you would go into the dressing room, to go to war with.
The only problem with Carlos is that he’s a bit of a rebel, he doesn’t really always follow the rules, he does what he wants, but it comes down to delivery and he will deliver. It just has to be in a structure that suits him and his mentality.
Will you always remember Tevez for keeping West Ham in the Premier League with his goal away at Old Trafford?
I’ll remember him for everything. He was a fantastic character, we got along well, he was a great guy and what you see is what you get. I think that period when we managed to stay up, it wasn’t just down to one individual.
No matter what fans see from the product on the pitch, it’s also what happens behind closed doors, and it was a group of us players that went there, and we had words with management; what was working for us, what we needed to do to win games. Management agreed at the time and we went on that fantastic run at the end of the season.
What do you make of the Hernandez situation at West Ham at the moment? Would you like to see him remain at West Ham/can you see him leaving the club?
I think it he wants to go, let him go. I think West Ham is a special club, where it needs to keep its identity, what it means to the fans and what it means to the people. I think sometimes now, it’s just the modern world that we live in, that there’s too much turnover with football players now. It’s happening too quickly now and I think that the fans are losing identity with the players that play for their club.
It just doesn’t make it as enjoyable as it was back in the day when fans could identify with certain players; that they want to be there and that they want to stay there. Now with the amount of money in football and the corporate side of the game, there’s just too much turnover, and if a player doesn’t want to be at a club then you have no choice but to let him go. I think now it’s going to be down to the club to find a way to get players to want to stay at the club for longer periods of time, to want to feel and be a part of that club.
I think that the fans play a big part in that, and also a big part has to come from the management side within the club.
You look at how Manchester United fans and how they treat Paul Pogba, because of his languid style on the pitch. He has scored more goals and got more assists than anyone at the club last year; he’s obviously the most talent player there but is it the problem the portrayal of the fans?
For me there’s no denying that he’s world class; you can’t deny that. It’s just the way he carries himself, it’s not what Man United fans like, which I think is irrelevant; that’s just his personality. I like it, because at the end of the day I think football blossomed a long time ago because of personalities and characters.
Back in the day with Roy Keane, Vieira, Thierry Henry, Le Tissier, Ginola, these type of players with a bit of personality who made the game more interesting and drew in a lot more fans. People started coming back to the stadiums. Nowadays in the modern game, it’s hard for a neutral fan to even point out personalities. So long as they’re taking care of business on the pitch, that’s the biggest thing.
Pogba’s definitely world class and at the biggest clubs in the world, and it should be their priority to keep him there and he should stay there.
You made the switch to Aston Villa in 2007; what was your time there like?
Villa was great. It was just the same, with a great dressing room similar to West Ham. There were some great unique characters; James Collins, Richard Dunne, John Carew, Ashley Young; there were some real big personalities that helped us be successful. Even as a player, you look at managers and their recruitment style and how they build teams, what kind of players they go for.
Between being as Villa and West Ham, it was teams full of characters. There would be periods when things were not going well, the characters that you had in the dressing room would take over.
Gareth Barry seems to have been playing forever; what was he like to play with?
He was another top player, very similar to Michael Carrick, but probably ventured further forward than Carrick did, but very similar playing styles in all-round play, he could get back, he could create goals and he could score goals. Very, very good player and another perhaps that is underrated and deserves more respect and recognition.
The season after your arrival saw James Milner join. How important a player is he to this day for Liverpool?
I’ve always known Milly from the U21s so we played together there and he’s always been very professional and one that is very hard working; he’s probably the ultimate professional. He’s a great role model for young players, even though I don’t believe that footballers are role models, but he is a great role model. He’s still going strong and there’s a reason that it doesn’t surprise me at all.
Did Milner used to win all of the fitness tests at Aston Villa as well?
Yes, for me it’s a difficult one but if you want to get into the technical side with this, from my career I’ve seen people in pre-season, I’ve seen the uniqueness of individuality if I’m honest, because for me, I’m, not the best in fitness tests but if you get match fit and you’re in a game, there are probably very few people who could run as much as me in a 90minute period. Some people are physically gifted at fitness tests, but it’s a different story in a 90minute game, but Milner seems to be able to do both! He can do the fitness tests and also be able to carry that out in a game.
You played with Ashley Young at Villa too, who is still going strong at United! Do you think he should be the Untied captain this season? Will he be able to hold on to his place over Wan-Bissaka?
I think that Ashley should definitely be named captain; he’s done well.
I think what United fans need to understand and be realistic with is that they’re not the Man United of old, it’s a time for change and the changing of the guard. It’s difficult to get that Alex Ferguson era at Man United again. As big as the club is, they have to be realistic.
To make Manchester United great like that again, you’re going to have to heavily rely on the academy system and I think it helps having a lot of the ex-players in that system to get a lot of the young players coming through to understand what it means to play for that club and what it means to wear the badge.
I know Youngy is very passionate about winning and he’s always been a winner from times at Aston Villa and even times at Wimbledon and I think that’s the type of character that you need. I think that he has been unfairly criticised at Manchester United, but he knows what it is, he can take it; he’s a very strong man.
He’s a strong personality, he’s mentally strong and you have to be at that club and play at that level and I think that’s definitely the type of player that you need. Someone that has played in England, has played for national team, someone that has been there and done that.
There’s not going to be a foreign player that would say no to joining Manchester United, but whether they would join for the right reasons or for their CV is another thing. That’s why I think it’s a difficult thing to recruit for a club like that at that level, because are you getting in the right players that are going to be committed or just want Manchester United on their CV.
What do you make of Aston Villa’s transfers this summer? They’ve spent over £80million, so there will be high expectations from the fans!
I think there are always high expectations at the club, it’s just a big club. A big club with history, there’s always going to be that expectation and that will never change. I think that it’s going to be difficult, the Premier League is growing every year and becoming a lot more difficult. The margin for error becomes smaller and smaller. It’s hard to tell at the moment because it’s a different level, but they have a lot of experience there, and the best teams have a balance there.
A lot of teams say they want to go for youth, but it doesn’t always work like that. There will be periods, especially at Christmas where the fixtures come thick and fast where it is about seeing out games, knowing how to win games and get points, and no matter how good a youngster is, they’re still learning the game.
How important was the signing of Tyrone Mings; both for what he helped achieve last season, and for securing his services in the Premier League?
He’s a good player and I played with Tyrone for a little bit at Ipswich. I think it’s a good signing but it’s a different quality level now, and he hasn’t had a proper run at the Premier League yet at Bournemouth. It’s a different level now and it’s a lot more about using your brain and seeing danger before it happens. It’s not as physical or physically demanding as The Championship, so I think that he will have to take his game to another level.
How important has Jack Grealish been to Aston Villa in getting them back into the Premier League?
He’s great and similar to Ashley Young, he’s the player that they need to keep and keep happy. He’s a Villa fan, he knows what it is to play for the club and he can be someone to take that club to another level.
The club definitely needs to back him, push him and put him on a pedestal as long as he continues to perform. He’s someone that they need to build a team around for the future of the club because you’re better having someone who supports the club and knows what it means to play for the badge.
How important has it been that they held on to him, and can you now see him spending the rest of his career with his boyhood club?
I think you could see that for at least three or four years you could see him staying there, as a minimum. That’s the dream of any youngster, any true football fan, playing for your local team and playing in the Premier League. There shouldn’t be anything better than that.
You made the switch to the Vancouver Whitecaps after Villa; how did you enjoy your time in The MLS?
It was interesting and a learning curve. It was a different style of football, a different mentality and a different way to look at the game.
Would you recommend other players look to try out their talents in the MLS now? Do you think the league has improved?
The league is growing an improving, but it’s just a different mentality. If they’re going to make that change I think they should be aware of exactly what they’re getting into, it’s not as black and white as you might think. It’s a real different mentality, coaching methods and it’s just whether you can get used to it. Growing up in a European environment and what is expected of you, it’s very difficult as it’s not the same mentality and coaching aspects over there, so you do have to be strong and mentally prepared. But it is growing and getting better, but it is going to take time.
How much of the English interest in the MLS is down to Beckahm’s move over to the LA Galaxy? Do you think that even players thought about moving out there due to Beckham?
You’re never going to get another David Beckham. What he brought was more that just football. I don’t think there’s any other player that could bring those levels of viewership to football all round the world, to all different backgrounds; he’s just a unique individual.
The MLS has been growing and got a lot of British and younger players; I think it would be a good league for younger players to go to as an education. I think that it would benefit them a lot more. But I think the general look is that more British players are going abroad to learn more about their game, learn different training methods, different coaching styles.
You got to play with Didier Drogba at the Montreal Impact; just how good was he? Can you see him making a move into management in future?
He’s unique and another fantastic character. It’s the characters like that who you miss in the modern game. I think those were the type of characters that you wanted to play with and sit and watch, because no matter when Drogba was playing, you wanted to watch. He definitely has all of the qualities to get into coaching and I just hope that he gets an opportunity.