Ugo Ehiogu tackled life after football with as much passion as he showed on the pitch – from becoming a partner in a new record label to helping develop the next generation of talent at Tottenham.
The former England defender died at the age of 44 after collapsing at Tottenham’s training centre, where he was coach of the Under-23s, following a cardiac arrest.
Born in Homerton, east London, Ugochuku started out on the long road towards becoming a professional at Senrab Football Club, the local team which can count the likes of Ray Wilkins, Bobby Zamora, Jermain Defoe, Sol Campbell and John Terry among its former players.
It was, however, at West Brom where the young defender would come through the youth ranks, before Ron Atkinson took him to Aston Villa in 1991 when Ehiogu, by his own admission suffered “an absolute nightmare” when handed his debut at home against Norwich.
“(It was) overconfidence. After gifting Norwich two goals, I was taken off,” he recalled in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.
“I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. Reading the papers for the next few days was agony and I didn’t feature in the team again for four months, but it did me a favour because I’d never known adversity before and maybe needed to be brought down a bit.
“Everybody can probably look back to a turning point in their career, that was definitely mine.”
As his career went on to develop, so did a calm exterior as Ehiogu moulded himself into an integral part of the Villa rearguard alongside Paul McGrath, winning his first trophy with the League Cup in 1994, despite having missed a penalty in the semi-final shootout victory over Tranmere.
He would become a cult figure at Villa Park, inheriting the number five shirt vacated by McGrath and going on to make more than 300 appearances, one of which was in the 2000 FA Cup final loss to Chelsea.
There were, though, also testing times following a serious eye injury after being caught in the face by Alan Shearer’s boot in a match against Newcastle in January 1999, which left the defender needing two operations to save the vision in his left eye.
“There was a crack when Shearer caught me and all the strength went from my body. I couldn’t stand up,” Ehiogu said in an interview with the Daily Mirror, also revealing Shearer had written to him personally when the full details of the injury emerged.
“It might have looked fairly innocuous on television, but it was quickly assessed as a very serious problem.
“Two bones behind the eye were cracked in the collision, which was purely accidental, and the damage could have been far worse.”
Middlesbrough came calling in November 2000, shelling out a then club-record £8million for the defender who teamed up with former Villa player Gareth Southgate as part of the Riverside revolution and he won the League Cup again in 2004 with victory over Bolton in Cardiff.
Again, though, there would be injury setbacks, Ehiogu suffering broken ribs and a punctured lung after colliding with Blackburn goalkeeper Brad Friedel on New Year’s Day 2003.
International recognition also followed as Ehiogu scored on his England debut in a 3-0 friendly victory against Spain – Sven Goran-Eriksson’s first game in charge.
However, continued knee problems would hamper his later career, which took in Leeds, Rangers and Sheffield United prior to his retirement in 2009.
Although Ehiogu eventually moved into coaching, the break from football allowed him to follow his other passion, helping to set up record label Dirty Hit, which boasts the likes of The 1975, Ben Khan, Superfood, Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Fossil Collective.
In 2010, he told skysports.com: ” I miss parts of football, I miss the banter, but I was lucky enough to have 20 years of playing and that was enough of training, playing and the discipline. It had taken its toll and my mind and my body were ready for a break.
“My love of football is massive, but my love of music is amazing.
“You have people eating out of your hands when you’re singing, you have people singing the lines of your song.”
Ehiogu, who admitted he ” used to get psyched-up to a bit of Bon Jovi” before a match, took his first steps into coaching at Spurs’ academy under Tim Sherwood and Chris Ramsey.
He had very much bought into the philosophy to inspire the next generation, which included developing a mentoring programme for young players to highlight issues around the modern game.
“If you come to watch games at Tottenham – in particular at development level – you will notice how we try and play, in a certain way with a certain style,” he said in a 2013 column for the Daily Mail.
“My hope is to see an England team that tries to play flowing interchangeable football, that can mix it with the best teams through physique and technique. It’s the way forward.”
Budding Premier League defenders needing advice on what it takes to succeed at the top would do well to look at a DVD of Ehiogu’s rock-solid performances for both club and country.
He leaves behind his wife Gemma, whom he married in 2005, and a son, Obi Jackson. Ehiogu also had a daughter, Jodie.