The towering Aston Villa centre-back had started fewer than 40 first-team games and turned 22 only days before he was summoned to join Terry Venables' squad to face Nigeria, his family's country of origin, in November. Far from coming from nowhere, Ehiogu is living proof that the grass roots can still nurture top-class talent.
The more conspicuously talented youngsters from his native Hackney were snapped up by London clubs. The self-effacing Ehiogu suggests he"wasn't good enough", despite representing his school, district and county. When his break came he was turning out on the Marshes for a club called Globe Town in the Tower Hamlets Sunday League.
"Our manager was a guy named Bobby Spink, and I owe him a lot because it was him that turned me from a lazy midfielder into a hard-working defender," Ehiogu recalled. The club president recommended him to Brian Talbot, who was then manager of West Bromwich Albion, and after a trial he signed as an apprentice.
Humble beginnings, indeed, for a player who has been dubbed "the new Paul McGrath". Brian Little, Villa's manager of six weeks, believes it would be surprising if some of the veteran's wiles had not rubbed off on him. But remembering how every forward who emerged at Leicester was instantly likened to Gary Lineker, Little plays down the comparisons and sees as much of Shaun Teale's combative influence in Ehiogu's game.
Tellingly, the defenders Ehiogu cites as earlier role models are noted for their anticipation (Des Walker) or technique (Ronald Koeman). His main inspiration was Alan Hansen."I loved the way he made everything look so easy," he said. "He was elegant and played like a sweeper, but hardly ever missed a tackle or got caught out. Defending comes first, though it's important to be able to use the ball too, to build from the back."
Despite making his League bow as a substitute at 17, Ehiogu exercised his right not to accept Albion's full-time terms."I was looking for a bit more than they offered, so I wrote to half a dozen clubs in the Midlands. Only two replied: Coventry, who saidthey were full up, and Villa, who told me to come on down."
The price was not right for Albion, who were as embarrassed as they were angry when Ron Atkinson was able to snap up Ehiogu in the summer of 1991 for an initial £40,000, rising to £200,000. Before August was out he had made his debut, playing right-back against the champions, Arsenal, and subduing Anders Limpar, whom he remem bers was "on fire" at the time.
However, 15 months went by before a chance arose to play in his preferred position. Coming in at home to Norwich, who led the table, he endured an error-ridden afternoon which Match of the Day picked over in all its sorry detail.
This prompted many to conclude - wrongly, according to Ehiogu - that he was destroyed by nerves. "If anything I was too relaxed. I didn't take due care, and the worst part was that I didn't get an opportunity to redeem myself that season."
In the face of some scepticism, Atkinson insisted Ehiogu would vindicate his judgement. He was appointed captain of Villa's reserves, taking them to the Central League title, and on his reappearance 10 months later the manager enthused: "I thought it wasMcGrath out there."
Nevertheless, the Irishman's partnership with Teale continued to look impregnable, and Ehiogu confesses to having felt frustrated last season. "I was going off to captain England Under-21s and coming back to play in front of two men and a dog in the reserves. I was getting stale - I wanted some of the action."
McGrath's shoulder problem meant his wish was granted for the last nine matches, and Ehiogu stayed in when the new campaign started. Within 24 hours of Atkinson's demise - to which, ironically, an alleged surfeit of "oldies" contributed - his reputation was enhanced by Venables' call. The decision of the new Villa regime to pair him with Teale at the expense of a player revered by the fans confirmed his impact.
"Ugo has pace, aerial strength, is strong in the tackle and he reads the game well," Little said. "There are certain things he needs to improve on, but he's got a good attitude and temperament, quietly confident rather than brash, so he's got every chance of reaching the top.
"There are kids who make it into the Premiership whose careers level off. Ugo mustn't forget what he's done to get this far and keep working at it, showing the same mentality and desire that someone like Bryan Robson has displayed throughout his career."
Robson, who also began at West Brom and benefited from Atkinson's patronage, went on to lead his country. Ehiogu's aim for the year ahead, apart from helping Villa to safety, is more modest. "Being with England was brilliant, and I was happy just to sit and watch," he said. "I realise the Pallisters, Adamses and Ruddocks are ahead of me - but I want to keep my foot in the door."Reuse content