Ugo Ehiogu, the Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and England center-back was an imposing and dedicated player and later coach, but never forgot his roots in Hackney.
Gareth Southgate remembers first meeting the late Ehiogu, who passed away in April after suffering from a sudden heart attack: “I first met Ugo in 1995 when I signed for Aston Villa. We were both young defenders and we played together as center-backs. We had five years at Villa and then we both met up again at Middlesbrough, where we played together for another five seasons.
“The reality of a center-back partnership is that you put your bodies on the line for each other. You get in the way, block the shots, you cover each other’s backs metaphorically and physically. We developed a really close, almost telepathic understanding of each other. But you play with someone for 10 years and ultimately so much is unspoken between you. There are so many parts of each other’s life that you know nothing about.
“I saw Ugo more socially at Villa. We were younger then and used to go out for dinner more often. He was a little introverted perhaps, but someone who just got on with his work in a very professional way. I remember he was meticulous about what he ate, which was a source of amusement then. Things would get sent back, but he had high standards and was single-minded enough not to worry about what people thought. Yet he was always very respectful.
“Although he was a quiet guy he was physically incredibly imposing. He was cut like a sculpture. One of the things when he died that hit me most was that he was just the most incredibly athletic lad. Although you understand that physical fitness doesn’t necessarily prevent a problem with the heart, it made it all the more difficult to get your head around: that someone who was the epitome of physical fitness could die so young.
“Ugo grew up in Hackney and he retained very strong community values, which he picked up from his family. The last message he tweeted was about giving £10 to a homeless girl in Hackney. It seemed like a random act of kindness but it wasn’t random. It was the way he lived his life. He did a lot of fundraising. We, his team-mates, used to have a laugh because every Christmas he would organize a raffle for his old boys’ club. But although we’d pull his leg, everyone would contribute because we recognized what he was trying to do, that he was giving back to something he’d been a part of as a boy.
“He supported and gave his time to lots of young people. Not just those he was coaching at Tottenham, but some of the music acts he’d worked with at his record label. But he didn’t just tell young people what they wanted to hear. He’d highlight the areas they needed to improve. He was a great role model.
“He was also a tremendously brave man. I had to manage him for a year when I took over as manager at Middlesbrough, and it was difficult because he had some horrendous injuries: a fracture to the eye socket that required a really delicate head operation, a punctured lung from a rib injury. His courage to come back and still put himself on the line was remarkable.
“We always judge sports people, and footballers in particular, by the games they play, what trophies they win. But in the end we’re all judged as people, and what was clear from the tributes across the game was the respect for Ugo as a person, his nature, his humility and his values. I wish I’d had the chance to sit and have a beer with him and tell him what I thought of him. His death made me think about how often, if ever, we let people know that we love and respect them. I would have loved the opportunity to tell him.”
The Guardian Sport