Ugo Ehiogu died suddenly yesterday at the age of 44. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson looks back at the centre-half's life, and explains why he will be remembered as a Middlesbrough great
SOMETIMES, off-field appearances can be deceptive. It is hard to imagine a more thoughtful, erudite and softly-spoken interviewee than Ugo Ehiogu, whose final tweet urging people to ‘do something good’ after he gave a ten-pound note to a homeless girl summed up his caring approach to life.
Away from the cut and thrust of action, Ehiogu was the perfect gentleman. On the football field, however, the towering defender was as committed and aggressive a player as you could ever wish to meet. The two sides of his personality blended perfectly – a winner who outperformed his opponents with a smile on his face.
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Other members of the Middlesbrough team that lifted the Carling Cup in 2004 and made the UEFA Cup final two years later spent more time in the headlines. Gareth Southgate wore the captain’s armband, Gaizka Mendieta supplied the Spanish style, and the likes of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka and Massimo Maccarone were lauded for putting the ball in the net. In many ways though, Ehiogu was the glue that helped hold everything together.
He was a powerful force in the dressing room and a respected performer on the pitch. Problems with injury might have restricted the amount of time he spent in a Boro shirt, and curtailed his England career to just four senior caps, but the success of the Steve McClaren era would not have happened without him. He will deservedly be remembered as a Middlesbrough great.
BORN in Homerton, east London, in 1972, Ugochuku Ehiogu spent his earliest footballing years with the respected Senrab Football Club that also helped produce the likes of Ray Wilkins, John Terry, Sol Campbell and Jermain Defoe.
However, while he was always proud of his London roots, he joined West Brom as a trainee and progressed through the youth ranks at the Hawthorns before Ron Atkinson splashed out £40,000 to take him to Aston Villa in 1991.
He made his top-flight debut shortly after, although it did not go to plan. “(It was) overconfidence,” said Ehiogu. “After gifting Norwich two goals, I was taken off.
“I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. Reading the papers for the next few days was agony, and I didn’t feature in the team again for four months, but it did me a favour because I’d never known adversity before and maybe needed to be brought down a bit. Everybody can probably look back to a turning point in their career – that was definitely mine.”
Such an inauspicious start did not hamper him though, and he quickly established himself as a linchpin of the Aston Villa defence, often appearing alongside Paul McGrath. He won the League Cup in 1994, despite having missed a penalty in the semi-final shoot-out victory over Tranmere, and also appeared in the 2000 FA Cup final as Villa lost to Chelsea.
In all, he made more than 300 appearances for Villa, but his career was to turn North-Eastwards in November 2000 when Bryan Robson agreed to break Boro’s transfer record in order to sign him for £8m. It was to prove an astute move.
AS had been the case at Villa, Ehiogu’s Boro career did not start well. Four minutes into his debut at Charlton Athletic, the centre-half pulled up clutching his hamstrings. Injuries were a recurring problem throughout his career, but thankfully his struggles on Teesside did not last long. By the end of his first season at the Riverside, he was established alongside Southgate at the heart of Boro’s back four. It was a partnership that was to endure for the best part of a decade.
The two former Villa team-mates complemented each other perfectly. Ehiogu was tough and aggressive, superb in the air but also quick across the ground and positionally excellent. He was comfortable with the ball at his feet, and in era when defenders were defenders first and ball-players a distant second, Ehiogu would often spark Boro attacks with a well-judged pass out of the back four.
Chiefly, though, he will be remembered for his thunderous challenges and thumping headers, at both ends of the field. One of the most heart-warming sights for a Boro fan of a certain vintage was a glimpse of Ehiogu charging into the opposition box for a corner. “Ugo, Ugo” the fans would cry. He was always a fans’ favourite.
He missed the second leg of the 2004 Carling Cup semi-final because of injury, but was back in the team for the final and produced one of the best performances of his career as Boro repelled an attempted second-half fightback from Bolton to lift the trophy. As Bolton’s attacking became more and more frantic, Ehiogu and Southgate continued to ooze almost a zen-like calm.
Two years later, and Ehioghu was part of the squad that made it to the UEFA Cup final in Eindhoven. He featured in both legs of the semi-final against Steaua Bucharest, but was an unused substitute against Sevilla as Chris Riggott took his place in the team.
By that stage, his Boro career was on the wane, and after a brief loan spell at Leeds United in the following season, he left the Riverside permanently when his contract expired in 2007. He would go on to play for Rangers and Sheffield United, but his best days were reserved for Villa and Boro.
ALTHOUGH Ehiogu was carving out a successful career in coaching prior to his sudden death, football was not the only focus for his life. He was always a huge music fan, and after hanging up his boots, he helped set up the ‘Dirty Hit’ record label, which is responsible for the likes of The 1975, Ben Khan, Superfood, Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Fossil Collective.
“My love of football is massive, but my love of music is amazing,” he said, in an interview with Sky Sports in 2010. “You have people eating out of your hands when you’re singing, you have people singing the lines of your song.”
Ehiogu spent some of his time working as a DJ, but his love of football never waned and he took his first steps into coaching at Spurs’ academy under Tim Sherwood and Chris Ramsey.
He rose to the position of Under-23 coach, and was so well-respected within the White Hart Lane hierarchy that many were tipping him to become a member of Mauricio Pochettino’s senior team within the next season or so.
He was also highly regarded at the FA, and was invited to assist Peter Taylor with England Under-20s at their World Cup in Turkey in four years ago. Given his close friendship with Southgate, there is every chance he would have become involved with the England senior set-up had he not suffered the cardiac arrest that took his life.
“If you come to watch games at Tottenham – in particular at development level – you will notice how we try and play in a certain way, with a certain style,” said Ehiogu, in a Daily Mail column in 2013.
“My hope is to see an England team that tries to play flowing interchangeable football – that can mix it with the best teams through physique and technique. It’s the way forward.”
THE most shocking thing about Ehiogu’s death is that it was so sudden and so unexpected. It only seems like yesterday that he was frolicking with Southgate on the podium at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, and his memory will be celebrated by the Middlesbrough fans attending today’s game with Bournemouth.
“I’m deeply shocked,” said Boro chairman Steve Gibson. “Ugo was one of our heroes at Cardiff when the club won its only ever major trophy.
“Ugo and Gareth Southgate were the rock on which Steve McClaren brought the club its best period in its history.
“He wasn’t just a good footballer; he was a great man. I would regularly bump into Ugo. Football is a small world and he was always warm, friendly and welcoming. All of Middlesbrough Football Club will miss him.”