Nigel Reo-Coker: 'It annoys me when I hear young kids who claim they live in a ghetto. They are all living in brick houses. Then you look at Jamaica or Africa and there are people living in huts. That's the ghetto...'

On the pitch and in life Nigel Reo-Coker leads by example. West Ham's young captain talks to Jason Burt about his outlook on England, the wider world and doing the right thing

Nigel Reo-Coker has always been a leader, a captain. Whether it was when he was at school, in the classroom, chosen to head a project or be a spokesman for the other pupils. Or out on the football field - as it is now, leading a Premiership team. At the age of just 21.

"There aren't too many people who can say that," Reo-Coker concedes. "Sometimes I can be a very dominant person when I need to be. I like to get my point across, have a force of personality - but most of the time I'm quite quiet and laid-back."

It is a mix that has worked for Reo-Coker, for West Ham United and for manager Alan Pardew, who told the midfielder on their first meeting that he intended eventually to hand him the armband. Reo-Coker's way of going about the job is clear. "I don't want to be a loudmouth on the pitch," he says. "I want to be doing it, showing the way, doing the right things."

It is a philosophy that affects his whole life. Reo-Coker has strong beliefs - whether when he is revealing that one day he wants to adopt an under-privileged child, or, surprisingly, that he may elect to play for Sierra Leone instead of England, or when he is discussing his disaffection with the so-called "gangsta" culture in inner-city Britain.

Doing the right thing is a recurring theme. "I don't want to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons," he says, adding that he has witnessed, at first hand, the damage that has caused to other players who are friends of his. "I want to be there for the right reasons. I want to try and be positive. It goes back to how I was brought up, how grateful I am."

He agrees with Pardew's belief that it's a good thing for West Ham, couched in such a multicultural area of London, to have a young black man leading out the team even if, of course, he is doing so by virtue of ability rather than the colour of his skin.

"It's positive," says Reo-Coker of what it means. "It does, for the ethnic community, give them heart and belief, especially for the young people. There's more to life than being a so-called 'gangsta' or living the street life or selling drugs. If you want something in life and want to work hard for it you can achieve it and there haven't been too many young black captains, or young black role models. I'm not saying I'm perfect but I'm going to try and be the best I can be and stay out of trouble, stay out of the bad headlines and live my life. That's all you can do.

"To an extent it's something that's been forced on me. Whether I like it or not there will be kids out there who will look up to me because it could be their dream. And if I'm doing it now then I'm obviously living it. They could be saying to themselves and thinking positively, 'If he's doing it then so can I'. You have to."

Reo-Coker only has to look into the eyes of his five-year-old nephew. "My sister tells me all the time that he's so proud of me," he says. "It shows the amount of pressure I'm under. I can't let him down." It's not the only image of a child he holds dear. "For me the promise that I made is that if I become as successful as I want to be that, as well as having kids of my own, I'd like to adopt a deprived child and give him the life that he can only dream about," Reo-Coker says. "That's the promise that I have made to God and it's something that I will do."

His faith is important to him and he goes to church as regularly as he can. "Sometimes you take things for granted and get carried away. Sometimes you get angry when you haven't got this amount of money or this and that and then you see images and documentaries from around the world. People with no food, who have nothing and you realise how ungrateful people are in this country. They are moaning about little things, this and that.

"It annoys me when I hear young kids who claim they live in a ghetto. They are all living in brick houses. Then you look at Jamaica or Africa and there are people living in huts. That's the ghetto. That's the hardship. The others are misled and not trying to do something with their lives. They are looking for the easy option."

Africa looms large in his life. His parents are separated, with his father returning to Sierra Leone where he is a doctor. Reo-Coker, too, wants to make a commitment to the country where his origins are and will "give back to the community and try and make a few kids happy". Indeed, he may - just may - play for the national football team ahead of England.

"I can still change my allegiance," says the captain of the England Under-21s. If he did - and it's a big if - it would be an astonishing decision. Not least because many feel that such has been his irrepressible form at West Ham, where he is the club's youngest-ever captain, that he is not that far away from a full England call-up and could even force his way into the World Cup squad.

But Reo-Coker knows there are other options. "As soon as you stop playing Under-21 football you have a year to change if you want to," he says. "There is an alternative, I could play for Sierra Leone but I've not thought that far ahead. I just want to see what happens and my main focus is West Ham.

"Obviously with Sven Goran Eriksson leaving after the World Cup I will have to see who comes in and whether or not I believe I'll be given a chance. It may be a manager who only likes a certain style of player and I may not fit in."

His style is very much in the mould of the players he admires most - Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard, the "world's best all-rounders. Very explosive players. Dominant." The Liverpool captain, in particular, impresses. "He's the best England have got, a fantastic player. Unbelievable. I can't compliment him enough."

Gerrard made his international debut early - the day after he turned 20 - but Reo-Coker fears that age remains a barrier too often. "I don't like that," he says. "That you are too young. I don't agree with it. If you are good enough you should play. With England the main problem we've got is that there is a backlog of young players - Michael Carrick, Jermaine Jenas, Jermain Defoe, Shaun Wright-Phillips. All young players who are not playing regularly yet and you question - when are they going to get their chance and then how long are you going to have to wait to get your chance?"

It is also, he says, evident in the Premiership. "Lots of clubs these days like to go and buy the cheap foreigner without giving young British players a chance," Reo-Coker says, although he was deeply impressed with his recent encounter with Arsenal's new signing, 19-year-old Abou Diaby. "It's becoming harder to come through. The majority of clubs go for the young foreign player and that's unfair on British talent."

West Ham are an exception. Their core is young, British and bursting with potential right through the side and not least the spine - from Anton Ferdinand in defence through to Reo-Coker in midfield and £7m signing Dean Ashton in attack who, at 22, is the eldest. And that's just to name three of the players Pardew has available. "He is trying to build his own team, build it around young players and push for Europe some time in the future," Reo-Coker explains. "He wants to start his own dynasty."

The midfielder is central to that. Indeed, Pardew has used the phrase "statement of intent" twice this season - when referring to the huge fee paid for Ashton and when Reo-Coker signed a new four-year deal tying him to West Ham until 2010. He is the future of the club, the manager said. And, increasingly, its present.

The ambition, the determination to build something memorable and the "stature, history, great players who have played here", sold West Ham to Reo-Coker who joined in January 2004 for £500,000 from a free-falling Wimbledon, where he had been installed as a teenage captain of a painfully young team.

Their former manager Stuart Murdoch said he did Reo-Coker few favours by putting him in charge. "I understand what he meant," says Reo-Coker as he recalls the traumatic, rapid decline which included such incidents as his friend Patrick Agyemang, the then top scorer, being taken out of the team prior to kick-off because he had been sold by the administrator. "But if he [Murdoch] hadn't given me that opportunity I wouldn't be doing what I am doing now," he says.

Besides Reo-Coker just wanted to play. "The fact is I was playing and that's what some youngsters fail to realise," he explains. "It was about getting games under my belt, experience. There are quite a few I know who were happy to be boasting that they were at the likes of Arsenal or Chelsea. But in the long term you think to yourself - are you really going to make it there? Are you going to play? At Wimbledon I had a realistic chance of starting my career."

He was picked up by the club aged 13, spotted by the academy director Roger Smith after representing the borough of Croydon. "Five or six" from his group were offered professional contracts and Reo-Coker, who made his debut at 17, accepted because he felt wanted. "There was no doubt in my mind that that was where I wanted to be," he said, still counting players such as Jobi McAnuff, Mikele Leigertwood, Wade Small and Marvin Kamara as close friends.

"But, yes, I've been through bad times. And the really bad times. I was there when we played in front of 20 or 30 of our own fans and 15,000 away fans. But I'm really happy I went through that situation. It's made me a better person. I wouldn't be the man that I am now or the character I've managed to become." In the end, however, what was happening at Wimbledon, now the MK Dons of course, was simply "heartbreaking".

Still, it wasn't easy when he arrived at Upton Park. He was one of six signings inside a month and struggled. "It was very hard for me," Reo-Coker admits. "I didn't really hold down a first-team place, I had to fight for it. It was also a big change mentally moving to a bigger club."

The demands, too, were immense. West Ham had been relegated the summer before and were expected to bounce straight back. "The fans had huge expectations, expecting a quick return to the Premiership. But life isn't always as easy as that," he says.

Still, West Ham reached the play-offs - only to lose to Crystal Palace, who had also tried to sign Reo-Coker, having rejected him as a kid. In that final he was a second-half substitute. His contribution in a sorry match for his team was a booking. Last season was even harder. By January 2005 West Ham had suffered three successive defeats, had slumped to ninth and Reo-Coker's form had dipped. It later transpired he was suffering from pleurisy. But, eventually, the play-offs and Cardiff were reached again - and he was there to captain a winning team.

West Ham's campaign was made more difficult because of the attitude of other clubs. "There was always a vendetta against West Ham in the Championship," according to Reo-Coker. "No one expected to be relegated with the squad they had. People say it was better than the squad we have now. When they were relegated I think a lot of people thought, 'Right, we're playing West Ham, it's a chance to impress against a big club in a smaller league'."

The matches took their toll. "The Championship is a very hard league," he says. "Everyone is a contender. There are a lot more games, it's a lot more physical and mentally it's a very hard battle. You have to continually perform at a very high level whether you are playing the likes of Reading or have to go to Sheffield Wednesday."

Indeed, Reo-Coker concurs with the theory that West Ham were always going to find the Premiership more "comfortable" because they are a young footballing side. Not that, Reo-Coker notes, it was a view universally shared. "When we were promoted we were reading reports in the papers saying, 'Oh, West Ham are favourites to go down, they are not going to survive. Sunderland will stay up'. It built up in us and got us really fired up for the season. It gave us fuel.

"We wanted to prove the critics, the doubters wrong. It was what we needed as players. We were tired of being written off and what's the point of life if you are not going to set yourself goals or have ambitions."

Sunderland were defeated last weekend, propelling West Ham to eighth in the Premiership. On Monday they are at home to Birmingham City. Suddenly, after a run of four successive league victories, to go with two in the FA Cup, a tilt at qualifying for European football is possible.

Reo-Coker, like his manager, detected a difference in the West Ham supporters last weekend especially as it was not until the 81st minute that their team scored against the 10 men of Sunderland. "They were patient with us," he acknowledges, "which shows just how far we have come. A while back, in a similar situation, they would have been very edgy."

His own experience has been one of increasing confidence. "I always had a belief that I could play in the Premier League," Reo-Coker says. "But the more games I have played at West Ham has given me the greater belief. When we got promoted it was just: bring it on."

Youth club: Four young players who were born to lead

* BILLY WRIGHT

Can claim to be the first footballer to have become a true celebrity after marrying Joy Beverley of the Beverley Sisters. Wright was made the captain of Wolves at the age of 20 and went on to make 105 appearances for England, 90 of them as captain. In 600 appearances for club and country he was never booked or sent off.

* BOBBY MOORE

Reo-Coker's most illustrious predecessor as West Ham captain and arguably the club's, and England's, greatest player. Moore (left) was captain of both by 22. Famed for his impeccable reading of the game, Moore led the Hammers to FA Cup success in 1964 and lifted the World Cup in 1966, setting up two of England's goals in the final.

* TONY ADAMS

Arsenal's youngest ever captain, given the armband aged 21, Adams (right) led the north London club to an array of silverware, including the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1994 and domestic Doubles in 1993, 1998 and 2002. He was also capped 66 times for England - 14 of them as captain.

* JOHN TERRY

Already a Premiership and FA Cup winner at 25, as well as an England regular, Terry looks set to become an all-time great. Yet to captain his country, the centre-back has been Chelsea's captain since 2004, given the role of leading a galaxy of star players at the age of 23. It has brought the best out in him, as he was voted best defender in the Champions' League in 2005.

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