Hot property Reo-Coker has to sweat it out

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Two Premiership clubs last week bid for Nigel Reo-Coker. This week it could be two more, or three or four. Indeed, 10 top-flight clubs sent scouts to watch the powerful Wimbledon midfielder recently as he ran the show against a seasoned West Bromwich Albion side. In the crazy world of the transfer window this 19-year-old, the third youngest-ever to be made captain, is the hottest property in the Football League.

And he knows it. "The better you perform then eventually a club will come in for you," he says. "At the moment it's all speculation, because scouts go to any game."

Reo-Coker is frighteningly mature in a frighteningly immature, if talented, team, average age 22, who sit at the bottom of the First Division, in administration and a temporary home, and who are slowly watching every playing asset they have being stripped away. Two hours before kick-off against Crewe Alexandra last weekend the manager, Stuart Murdoch, was called by the administrator and told that the top scorer, Patrick Agyemang, could not play. He was being sold. It could happen again any day. It could be Reo-Coker next.

"We haven't had offers we feel are reasonable - we've had derisory offers," says Wimbledon's phlegmatic manager, who admits to cynicism over the wearying experience.

"I've been disappointed by some managers - and heartened by others. But there will always be some people - agents - who are trying to get your players away and tell them they will be better off. We just don't need that."

What they do need is the fourth-round FA Cup tie against Birmingham City next Saturday, which will provide much-needed revenue and may delay departures. Birmingham, incidentally, are another interested in Reo-Coker.

Murdoch's tactics are simple - to try desperately to hold on until the summer. "That's the time," says Murdoch as he sits incongruously in the reception of the National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes. But he knows that Reo-Coker will leave - eventually. Wimbledon, even in their pomp, were a selling club.

"He's a good leader," the manager says. "In retrospect I probably haven't done him any favours. When I made him captain we were set to be here at the beginning of the season and out of administration. Being out on the pitch is his great strength. What he's had is lots of things around him that he doesn't need at his age."

However, Reo-Coker is frank about his future. Yes, he's had talks with Simon Jordan, the Crystal Palace chairman, who has a £500,000 offer on the table. But he's aiming higher. He wants the Premiership. "He's offered the club to me, what he wants to achieve," Reo-Coker says. "I thought it was just respectful to meet him, and told him that I was going to wait and see what happens in January.

"Other clubs have come in, but it's a question of whether they make the right move. The situation is different because the administrator is handling any negotiations. If we were not in administration, the club could ask for a lot more, because I've got another two years left on my contract."

A product of the hugely effective Wimbledon youth system, his loyalties run deep. Leaving the club, however parlous their state, is a wrench. "It's such a tight family unit," he explains. "It will be sad to leave, if I do, because I can't replace the friends I have here. We all played together in the youth team and have grown up together."

He was made captain after last summer's exodus. "When I made my debut at 17, people knew me because I was shouting orders and bossing people around, and that was when Kenny Cunningham, Dave Connolly and Neil Shipperley were all there." Nevertheless, the duties can be onerous.

"It's very hard," he admits. "There's a lot to take into consideration, including the off-the-field goings-on. But you have to mature quickly. Of course I was excited - to be captain at 19, not many kids ever achieve that, so it's something I will look back on. But it's also been a burden. I hope I've managed to take it in my stride." Little wonder his England Under-21 debut, against Turkey, was so enjoyable: "I had no pressure on me."

It's helped, in some ways, that his Wimbledon team-mates are also young - "But it would be nice if there were a few more senior players. Because I'm only 19 I've only played a certain number of games, and so when people look to me for leadership, I'm still thinking, 'But I've got to learn as well, and how am I going to get around this?' "

The season has been a bitterly unlucky one. "Even though we lost so many players I was still very positive with the talent we have coming through. I thought we would be OK, but football is a very difficult game."

There is no substitute for experience. "I can't inject it into them or arrange a training session on experience," says Murdoch ruefully. His young star could be forgiven if he agitated for that move simply to find more stability. Reo-Coker disagrees. "I'm experiencing things many players older than me haven't," he argues. "I just hope it helps make me a world-class player."

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