There is only one Nigel Reo-Coker sitting before me, but in the world of public perception there are two. One is the old-before-his-years "born leader" who captained Wimbledon as a teenager, West Ham at 20 and England Under-21s into the semi-final of last summer's European Championship. This is the player Martin O'Neill will entrust with the most demanding position on the pitch at Old Trafford today.
The other is the Billy Big-time ringleader of West Ham's Baby Bentley set, the clique that nearly dragged the club back into the Championship. The player West Ham insiders nicknamed Nigel Mediocre and were delighted to offload to Aston Villa, especially for £8.5m.
Either way the man I'm interviewing should be a confident one. And he is, wondering aloud why he is not playing for Fabio Capello, questioning whether O'Neill is asking the impossible by expecting him to play the holding role in a 4-4-2 formation. Yet there is also an insecurity. Growing up fast is not easy, even for a bright, talented footballer with a close-knit family. Add in the profile of the Premier League, which means, to his amazement, he has been recognised in Orlando and New York – by Americans, not English tourists – and even the strongest carapace of confidence can develop cracks.
In London when he felt low – and there were tough times at Wimbledon and West Ham – he had his family, and a circle of long-established friends, to lift him. Now he is on his own and while Villa have had a good season it is beginning to peter out. Last weekend they lost at home to Sunderland and Reo-Coker was withdrawn before the hour. That appears to have prompted some soul-searching.
"I'm 23, still single, no wife, no kids, nothing," he says. "I've moved from home and I'm living in Birmingham by myself. I come to training. I might not have had a good game at the weekend, and I don't have a good session. I get very down, very low on confidence. Who do I turn to when I get down and depressed? There's no one to talk to and you can't get away from football. You can read books, play computers, but football is so big you can't avoid it.
"Fans are not interested by that side. All they are about is Reo-Coker turning up on Saturday and performing to the best of his abilities, to their expectations. It is difficult. Some weekends I go back to London, go to my church, it can be a relief. But that's not there during the week.
"I am my own worst critic. I remember coaches saying I am too hard on myself, that I take football too seriously. I've been told I play like I have the world on my shoulders. But that is me. When we lose I feel ashamed."
It is an unusual choice of adjective. Normally defeated players are angry, or disappointed, but the engaging Reo-Coker is an unusual footballer, better educated than most and more worldly. He would rather talk about Barack Obama than Big Brother, he feels he has to educate team-mates about current affairs, and a post-career ambition is to travel the world, this time seeing more than the footballers' itinerary of airport-hotel-stadium-airport.
Take his reading: Reo-Coker has just finished a self-help treatise, popular with rap artists and in the tradition of Machiavelli, called The 48 Laws of Power. Among the suggestions in Robert Greene's book are, "Conceal your Intentions"; "Court Attention at all cost"; and "Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the credit".
There will be plenty of West Ham supporters who will argue this is already his working template, which means that when Reo-Coker came to Law 5, "So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life", he will have nodded ruefully. Having spent four years building a reputation as one of the game's rising talents he is still trying to repair the damage done in those few months.
Mud sticks in football and though Capello, a fan of holding midfielders, has called up three Villa team-mates, Reo-Coker has not received the nod. "I'm disappointed," he said. "I'm a very humble person, but I'd be lying if I said I was not. I was stand-by for the World Cup as far back as 2006 but you start to think, 'What more can you do?' You start to lose a bit of faith and think, 'I don't give a damn. I'll just concentrate on my club and what happens, happens'. I'm at that stage now."
At 23 Reo-Coker has time on his side, not that that is any consolation to a man in a hurry. Perhaps his impatience is exacerbated by the impression he gives, even has of himself, that he is older. At one time he talks of "young players coming into the game", as if he is 33. He also says, "On the bus at Villa while Ashley [Young] and Gabby [Agbonlahor] are the loud pranksters at the back doing their crazy stuff, I'll be at the front being quiet, reading a book or watching a DVD. They won't come and take the Mickey out of me, call me 'busy', because they know that is me." Young is 22, Agbonlahor 21.
This maturity probably stems from his background, and early years in the game. Though born in London he spent his first six years in Sierra Leone where his father was a doctor. After his parents separated his mother brought Nigel and his two sisters back to London.
"It was tough, especially being immigrants," he said. "We lived in a one-bed flat next to Iceland at Elephant and Castle. Mum worked [as a nurse], for a while we stayed with an auntie."
Tough it may have been, but Reo-Coker would not be sitting in the snooker room (he does not play himself, but it was a quiet location) at Aston Villa's impressive Bodymoor Heath training complex, had his mother, Agnes, not made the move. Footballers are increasingly scouted from Africa, but Mohamed Kallon, once of Internazionale, now at AEK Athens, is the only player of note to be plucked from Sierra Leone.
The main reason for that is the civil war, which began soon after the family left and only ceased, after British troops became involved, six years ago. Reo-Coker, whose father is still there, said, "It was all about greed. Sierra Leone is one of the richest countries in the world for diamonds. The film, Blood Diamond, covers that slightly. There were troops going into villages slaughtering people for no reason, just power and greed." Reo-Coker adds: "Coming here was a blessing in disguise. God works in mysterious ways."
His mother insisted her children work hard at school. Reo-Coker earned 11 GCSEs at good grades but while both sisters went to university he headed for a different education, Wimbledon FC and their old training base of a revamped transport café by the A3.
"I would not trade my time there for anything," he said. "We did not have the best facilities but the atmosphere was such you made friends for life. It seems like yesterday. I'd get the train to Putney, then the 85 bus and get off just past Asda. After training you'd be so tired, but you'd see a bus coming so you'd peg it up the road. Then you'd have to make sure you didn't fall asleep on the train home and miss your stop. It made you appreciate a lot."
With the Dons in financial meltdown the kids were thrown in. Seven of that youth generation still make a living in the game including QPR's Patrick Agyemang and Mikele Leigertwood, and Cardiff's Jobi McAnuff. With the club negotiating to move to Milton Keynes captaincy was a heavy burden but Reo-Coker carried it well enough for Alan Pardew to take him to West Ham for £500,000.
He was soon given the captain's armband, and shortly after was leading his team out in the Premier League. Interviewed at this time for The Independent, he talked enthusiastically of the bright young side Pardew was building at West Ham.
It did not quite work out like that. What happened? He shakes his head. "I have no idea. The first year was fantastic, everyone was playing off adrenaline. We all had a point to prove and we overachieved. That was probably our downfall. In the summer I had an injection for a back injury and missed a full pre-season, as did a few others. After a few games that catches up with you. You start to look slow and tired. Fans don't appreciate how important pre-season is, nor did I until then."
Being a box-to-box player Reo-Coker's lethargy was noticed. Meanwhile, results were poor, confidence dipped, the crowd became edgy and the club became the subject of a takeover. The squad now underperformed and Reo-Coker got the blame.
"Why? I really don't know. I was captain, the one people look up to, and I got victimised to a degree. As I wasn't getting around the pitch like before people thought I was not trying. There were rumours that I felt I was too good for West Ham. It was all fabricated but every time you defend yourself it's another story."
The club became a media obsession. "People were thinking 'where are these stories coming from?' There were all these leaks about our personal lives. Players stopped trusting each other.
"Football is like any working environment. You have your boss and your colleagues. You might not like some of them but you have to work with them, you'll have your good times and bad times. But with football there are a lot more low times than high times, and when you are low you are really, really low. I felt the club could have backed me up more."
West Ham survived, but it became clear that management perceived Reo-Coker as a bad influence and wanted him out. O'Neill rescued him, but another change soon ensued as he was given the holding midfielder role.
"Makelele with legs" is O'Neill's description of Reo-Coker but the player would like to use those pins more. "I look at myself as a box-to-box player," he said. "I am full of energy, I want to be let loose. To have the freedom to go where I want to go."
If he does though, he hears a bark from the touchline, sees a whirling dervish in a black tracksuit, and swiftly retreats. "I know I have more to offer Villa, but the manager picks the team and that's what he wants.
"It is a very disciplined role and you need a good structure. It suits a five-man midfield, the way Chelsea or Barcelona play it. We are playing it in a 4-4-2 which is very difficult. I think it is impossible. You are still going to give time on the ball to your opposing midfielder and if you do that international midfielders will hurt you."
Manchester United, against whom Villa have a shocking record, are well equipped to prove that. Reo-Coker, who defeated the champions home and away with West Ham last year, said, "No one expects us to get anything – except the gaffer, he'll be devastated if we don't win – so we can go out and express ourselves.
"I feel there's nothing to lose but all to gain but it's hard to get that attitude installed into your team-mates. It has to come from within. It is up to that person's mental strength to believe in himself and to bring that out at Old Trafford."
Today will be Reo-Coker's 200th senior game, a lot of matches for a young man. It will be a surprise if, in the next 200, there are no international caps. It will certainly surprise the man himself, but as he says, "I need to believe in myself. When I am going through my bad times there is no one else to tell me."Reuse content