Reo-Coker reads the riot act to kids of Croydon

Bolton's new signing comes from the south London suburb consumed by violence this month. He tells Sam Wallace that young people need to work hard for their chance in life
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If it is football clichés and tiresome stuff about "banter with the lads" you want then best steer clear of Nigel Reo-Coker. At 27, with more experience of football's ups and downs than most manage in a whole career, Bolton Wanderers' new midfielder is a true one-off. Analytical, intelligent and with a perspective on issues a lot wider than those encompassed within the white lines of a football pitch, he always has something interesting to say. Oh, and he can play a bit, too.

The Bolton Wanderers' training ground is a happy place to be at the moment; their 4-0 opening day win away at Queen's Park Rangers means they are off to a flier and tomorrow's game against Manchester City is a bonafide top-of-the-table clash. Reo-Coker himself is an early bird. He suggests 9am for our pre-training interview and he presents himself 10 minutes early. Breakfast is done. Training does not start until 10.30am but already he is raring to go.

Reo-Coker joined Bolton on a free transfer this summer after four years at Aston Villa. Before that he was at West Ham where he captained the club in the 2006 FA Cup final at the age of 21 and was on stand-by for Sven Goran Eriksson's World Cup squad later that summer. He has been through the good and the bad, most notably a fall-out with Martin O'Neill at Villa two years ago, but he is still standing. As Reo-Coker likes to say: "Tough times don't last, tough people do."

He is delighted to be at Bolton with a manager, Owen Coyle, who impressed him enormously when they first met up to discuss him moving to the Reebok Stadium this summer. "The fantastic thing was the meeting was just about football and that is what I am about," Reo-Coker says, "just about football. I try to be the best I can be. It was about how he is as a human being, how he treats people. What he is trying to do in football terms. He has been a player, so he understands the mentality of the footballer. It was a great professional meeting. That was what I took from it."

Reo-Coker had done his research on Coyle and vice versa. It was positive on both sides and he had no hesitation in signing. Coyle had found about him as a player from staff at previous clubs and former team-mates of Reo-Coker. The Bolton manager had chosen not to believe the perception some hold of Reo-Coker but sought out people who knew the man himself.

For the record, Reo-Coker is not a brash, cocky footballer – quite the opposite – and after five minutes in his company you do start to wonder how he ended up with a reputation for being difficult. "For me it is as simple as this, the press can leave an imprint in people's minds," he says. "That's the best way to put it. It is a personal thing. You have heard me and you can write it up and paint any type of portrait of me. Some people read that and believe it is the gospel.

"I have never been this troublesome bad boy. I don't know where it has come from. On the football field I am very aggressive because I want to win things. That is my playing style. I am not a typical footballer who plays golf. I have tried that, it doesn't work for me. I like to hang out with my friends and family. I like deep-sea fishing and clay pigeon shooting. I read books. Some people might be like 'OK, it's a young black boy from south London, what does he know about clay pigeon shooting or deep sea fishing?'.

"They are not stereotypical things that a footballer is expected to do. For some people it is hard to accept that, or comprehend that. Some people seem to put this image on me. If you speak to people who know me really well – even at Aston Villa – they will tell you what I'm like: a low-key guy, keep myself to myself and my life simple."

Which, in a roundabout way, is how we got on to the big issue in English society at the moment. Reo-Coker spent much of his childhood in Croydon and still has many friends there with whom he has discussed the riots, looting and vandalism that engulfed the area earlier this month. Reo-Coker went to the Riddlesdown Collegiate school in Purley, having moved to the area from Elephant and Castle where he, his mother Agnes-Lucinda and his two sisters lived in a single-bedroom flat.

So what made Reo-Coker different from the angry, disenfranchised kids who attacked their own neighbourhood? "When I grew up, my mum played the mother and father role. We were a very tight-knit family, with two older sisters – they are both civil servants – it was for me, even as the youngest one, to be the man of the family. It was about being successful. It was not to let my mother down; it was to make my mother proud of me. That's what we all strived for.

"It's a lot to do with upbringing. I wasn't allowed to go out to the park with my friends. I was only allowed to play football in the street – literally in front of the house. At the time I didn't see the benefit of it. I just felt my mum was too strict and a bit too mean. But now I look at it and, if she hadn't, I wouldn't be the man I am now and as successful as I am now.

"It is disappointing and sad to see what happened in Croydon. I saw on one [television] report a guy say he was saddened and disappointed to be a black man and it is true – if you look at the majority of the youths who caused trouble, they were black youths. That is sad to see. The Croydon aspect of it, I have been past the furniture store [House of Reeves, which was burned down] many times. It is around the corner from where my best friend lives and it is just so sad to see how a mindless few can cause trouble and damage other people's lives.

"The rioting hasn't achieved anything. There are better ways of handling the situation. My personal opinion on it is that we are living in a broken society. There are kids having kids now. Kids [becoming parents] who haven't lived a life of their own, who haven't had the life experience of going through certain situations. They are having kids now, so how can they give knowledge to their own children? It is a lot to do with a broken society.

"There have been a lot of things that I believe have come together to cause problems. It is not just one thing in particular. [There is] A lack of respect now – I have seen young kids with the language they use. When I was growing up, if you were on the bus and you saw someone older than you who needed a seat, you would get up straight away and give them your seat. I was always told to respect your elders but a lot of the younger generation don't seem to respect or fear anyone. It is a different world we live in. It really is sad to see."

Reo-Coker likes to describe himself as coming from the "old-school" and you can see why. His journey to training as a kid with Wimbledon (the original Wimbledon FC when they were still in south London) involved a bus then a train journey. Sometimes he was so exhausted after school and training that he would fall asleep and miss his stop. But his mother had taught him early on that nothing was achieved without hard work – a lesson that has stayed with him.

"Society has changed so much and even now a lot of attention is paid to quick fame rather than hard work and endeavour," he says. "There is a lot of thirst for material things. They [young people] think if they don't have all these materialistic things, a nice car, they feel they are not worth anything. That's just my personal opinion.

"There is a show on MTV. It's about young kids who have these glorious houses and they show them off. I watch that and think 'OK, your family are really wealthy, so why are you coming on TV to show how nice your house is? You haven't worked to achieve anything.' And when you keep seeing these things you don't understand the mindset that is being given to the younger generation. I just feel there are so many different factors. In some areas it is a lack of opportunity to really see anything to push yourself for."

He had peers whom he started his career with, Reo-Coker says, who are now finding it hard to find a club even at 27 years old. "Once you get there it is hard to stay there. You might have a new manager, you have to put performances in week in, week out. You are constantly analysed now, closer than ever. Can you handle the criticism? The negative press? It's a constant battle. To let these kids [in Croydon] know even if it wasn't football, any other industry that you try to go into, you have to deal with all those situations along the line. And if you really want it, you have to keep fighting for it."

In spite of the career he has enjoyed, Reo-Coker does not lay claim to be a role model. In fact, he believes that the only effective role models for any young man are those people they know well.

He wants to be a role model to his nephew and niece but questions how footballers, remote individuals as they are to most people, can be regarded as such.

"When I was young, coming through, I looked up to footballers and then when I did meet them and got to know them slightly better than just as a footballer I thought, 'Ah, OK... thanks' [ie, he was unimpressed]. That's just an opinion. They might say something [bad] about me. You really learn about people you know well. You learn about real men when you know them on a deeper level, not just what you see on the TV screen.

"I don't look at footballers as role models. If parents let their kids look at footballers as role models, they need to look at themselves as a parent. That is not me being disrespectful. There are footballers who are good men and who are good role models but I still find it hard for someone who doesn't know them on an intimate level to say 'That's a good role model'."

When the riots broke out in Croydon, his first thought was to call his best friend's mother to check she was safe. "She couldn't believe what she was seeing, she was so saddened by it. She could see people looting. Outside her house were people with cars filling them with goods." He shakes his head at the memory. Even after a short time in his company you can tell why Coyle warmed to Reo-Coker so quickly. He is the kind of character you would want around a club, on the pitch and off it.

My other life

Deep-sea fishing was something I always wanted to do. For the last five or six years I have been with my friends. I would like to go to Australia because that's where you can catch the black marlin. It's a seasonal thing, so I'll have to wait until after my career. That's the king of the ocean, a prize catch. It can take hours. You reel him in and then let him out. There's a real technique to it.