In our ‘Remember When’ series we look back at stories from Aston Villa’s past. Here we recall the infamous ‘contretemps’ between manager Martin O’Neill and midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker on the Bodymoor Heath training ground in September 2009.
It was a month into the 2009-10 Premier League campaign, which would turn out to be Martin O’Neill’s last season at Villa, who would finish sixth in the top flight table and make it to the Carling Cup final and FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The previous Sunday, Gabby Agbonlahor had grabbed a late winner in a 1-0 Second City derby victory over Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City at St Andrew’s. It was a routine Thursday morning training session on September 17 2009 as O’Neill and his coaches prepared the first team squad for that weekend’s home clash against Portsmouth. Suddenly it became less than routine when O’Neill and Reo-Coker clashed following a flashpoint in an 11-a-side practice match.
What sparked it
At the time it was reported that O’Neill intervened after Reo-Coker had a go at a then teenage Nathan Delfouneso for opting to shoot rather than passing to him. O’Neill sided with Delfouneso and as the row escalated it was alleged that the manager and the midfielder had to be separated. It is then said that the training game was abandoned and the players were instructed to do running drills. After the incident Reo-Coker was sent home. He returned to the training ground the following Monday. At the time O’Neill was considering fining the midfielder, but it is not known whether that actually happened.
What happened next
Reo-Coker was suspended for the weekend’s match against Pompey – James Milner and Agbonlahor sealed a 2-0 win – and also missed the following week’s 1-0 Carling Cup victory over Cardiff City when Agbolahor was again on target. The former West Ham United midfielder was back in the matchday squad for th next fixture, but was an unused substitute as Villa lost 2-1 to Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. His return to action came with an eight minute cameo as a substitute in a 1-1 league draw with Manchester City at Villa Park on Monday, October 5. It was Tuesday October 27 in that Carling Cup penalty shootout win at Sunderland before he was back in the first XI and Saturday November 7 – 51 days after the ‘contretemps’ – before he started a Premier League game, the 5-1 home win over Bolton Wanderers. Reo-Coker did make a series of starts in the months that followed but tended to be used as a substitute in the closing stages of the season.
What O’Neill said
Martin O’Neill said: “There was a bit of a contretemps between myself and Nigel, which usually happens between players really and the manager separates them. There were no fisticuffs. There was no wrestling to the ground. I don’t remember lying on the floor. But it was enough for me to treat the incident seriously. I make the rules. I am the manager of the football club. I am a custodian of the football club and so my rules apply. The players have to get used to that. It’s as simple as that.”
What Reo-Coker said
Nigel Reo-Coker said “It’s the first time I’ve experienced something like that and some people will have this view of me as a troublemaker, which I’m portrayed as in the press sometimes, but I know that’s far from the truth. If people actually spoke to people who work at the club, who know me on a personal and more intimate level, I’m sure they could give you a true reflection of the type of person I am. I’m not a troublesome person. If people want to say that’s what I am, that’s down to them. But I’m secure in the man that I am and people true to me know my character and intentions.”
Although it didn’t seem that it would be the case at the time, Reo-Coker actually outlived O’Neill in terms of his claret and blue career. O’Neill resigned five days before the following season – 2010-11 – after falling out with owner Randy Lerner over the direction in which the club was heading. Reo-Coker enjoyed a revival under Gerard Houllier and became an important member of O’Neill’s successor’s team. So much so that he was even being touted for a move to a Champions League club when his contract (a new deal could not be agreed) expired in the summer of 2011. Reo-Coker also spent time in Major League Soccer with Vancouver Whitecaps, Chivas USA and Montreal Impact and had a stint with Norwegian club IK Start before trying his luck with MK Dons. As for O’Neill his next job was at Villa’s Premier League rivals Sunderland. He was sacked after 15 months and became national team manager for the Republic of Ireland in November 2013.
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