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Player Review: Nigel Reo-Coker

Who better to occupy my second instalment of Player Review than Villa’s new temporary captain, Nigel Reo-Coker. The 26-year-old was handed the honour of the club armband after permanent skipper, Stiliyan Petrov was injured in last weekend’s clash with Sunderland. The knee problem is likely to keep the Bulgarian out of action until the New Year but the unfortunate nature of the injury for Petrov symbolises an unbelievable turn of events in the Villa career of Nigel Reo-Coker. After featuring in 8 of the 9 league games thus far, just 2 less than the whole of last term, the midfielder has impressed new manager Gerard Houllier and fans alike with his tireless performances in the centre of the park. It is perhaps not a surprise that the London born player was entrusted with the captaincy having led both of his previous clubs, Wimbledon and West Ham, from the age of 20. Reo-Coker has also captained Villa on numerous occasions, most notably lifting the Peace Cup in last year’s pre-season, and his ability to lead by example made him an exemplary candidate for the role. The tenacious England Under-21 international will guide his team out for the first time in the league this season against fierce rivals Birmingham on Sunday.

The work rate and stamina of Nigel Reo-Coker have never come into question, even when he was consistently overlooked by Martin O’Neill in the last two seasons. The former manager signed the 26-year-old from West Ham in 2007 for a fee reportedly in the region of £8.5m. The big money signing was seen as Reo-Coker’s big opportunity to step up to full international level but despite featuring in 36 league games, the midfielder failed to substantially impress then manager, Steve McClaren. The senior international call-up has still unsurprisingly not come, having spent much of his time on the fringes of the Villa squad in recent years. Reo-Coker’s potential was indisputable from an early age as he became Wimbledon and West Ham’s youngest senior captain whilst also skippering the England Under-21s. Between 2003 and 2007, Nigel represented the Under-21s 23 times before making the switch to Villa Park. In September of this year Reo-Coker turned down the chance to represent Sierra Leone, still harbouring a desire to prove himself as a future England international.

The lost years of Nigel Reo-Coker’s career started when he began to fall out of favour with Martin O’Neill toward the end of the 2008/09 season. The midfielder was a main stay for the first half of the season but began to be phased out by then captain Gareth Barry and current captain Stiliyan Petrov. After 22 games of the league season Nigel completed just one more league appearance in the 2-1 defeat to Tottenham. A positive start to the 2009/10 season saw him lift the Peace Cup defeating the likes of Porto and Juventus along the way. He then went on to captain Villa in the memorable 3-1 away victory over Liverpool early on in the campaign. O’Neill’s reluctance to rotate the squad and a tendency to deploy Reo-Coker as a right back led to a fractious relationship. On the 18th September 2009 Reo-Coker was involved in an alleged training ground bust-up with O’Neill which saw him dropped for the subsequent tie with Portsmouth. Despite the rumours being played down, Reo-Coker went on to start just 3 more games in the league, a highlight being leading the team out to a 5-1 home victory over Bolton.

Martin O’Neill’s shock departure was seen as a chance for the likes of Reo-Coker, Curtis Davies and Steve Sidwell to regain a place in the Villa starting line-up but it is only the former who has impressed enough to do so. Consistent battling and assured displays led to recognition from caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald and backed up by new manager Gerard Houllier. The 26-year-old’s current contract expires next summer and the Frenchman is keen to tie up a new deal for the midfielder sooner rather than later. The deal would represent a complete turnaround of fortunes for the player who deserves the credit he is getting for his recent efforts after being unlucky and some would say unfairly treated under the old management.

Reo-Coker possesses strength on the ball and a good football brain, opting for the simple and safe over the extravagant and unnecessary. His tackling was called into question in his early career and in his first season at the club he picked up 8 yellows and 1 red card. Since then his disciplinary record has improved significantly receiving just 5 more league yellows in the following three seasons. If there is an area in his game where he needs to improve it would be his ability to weigh in with goals for the club. The midfielder has a fairly embarrassing stat of having as many league own goals as he does goals for his club at just 1. The own goal couldn’t have been helped. An attempted clearance from keeper Scott Carson produced a comedy moment in smacking Reo-Coker from outside the box and bouncing into an empty net. His first goal proper came almost 2 years ago in a 2-1 away win over Tottenham. Reo-Coker has had two glorious chances to score this season after recently missing a 6-yard 1on1 against Burnley in midweek. The home game previous he had a fantastic opportunity to claim three points against champions Chelsea but after hard work in gaining possession, a heavy touch forced him to chip over the oncoming Petr Cech and wide of goal.

According to my Player Ratings feature, Reo-Coker has been Villa’s top and most consistent performer this season with an average rating of 6.88 pipping the likes of Brad Friedel, (6.87), and Emile Heskey, (6.85). If he keeps performing like he is, Nigel could well force his way into Fabio Capello’s plans after the miserable 0-0draw with Montenegro. The issue is that England’s next qualifier isn’t till the New Year so the 26-year-old will need to maintain his form for some time but long may it continue.

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