Second chances, Nigel Reo-Coker and the Vancouver Whitecaps


Nigel Reo-Coker is on his way from Ipswich to Vancouver, his fourth club in four years. Photo courtesy

Well. The Vancouver Whitecaps have added a 28-year old English player with 200 matches of Premier League experience, ending Martin Rennie’s off-season of moving and shaking with a bang. But even as the club touts Nigel Reo-Coker’s experience as a captain and he ambitiously trumpets that he hasn’t yet hit his prime, why is everyone so nervous?

Hardly the questions you want to answer about your newest star signing. Part of the nervousness is because this story hasn’t ended well before, both in terms of Reo-Coker and the Whitecaps. Despite his star-studded CV, this is the newest Whitecap’s fourth move in four years, each to a club lower and lower in stature. If we hadn’t have taken him, he’d have gone to the English third division.

But the narrative of a bruised but brazen Reo-Coker trying to assure a new fan base that he can overcome past mistakes might apply too to the Whitecaps, when it comes to justifying their transfer decisions. Over the last two years, they’ve flipped away fan-favourites inexplicably and splashed huge cash on designated players mid-season that slink away in the summer. The Whitecaps want you to believe that this signing is more Y.P. Lee than Barry Robson, but the fact that Reo-Coker’s decline is the first thing on everyone’s mind is due to some lingering trauma over past transfer masterworks gone awry.

Part of the shock of the move is that if you follow English football, Nigel Reo-Coker is a name you know and might even be surprised had gone. Out of the Premier League for only half a season, Reo-Coker enjoyed a promising career with the England U-21s that coincided with rapid rise to the captaincy at West Ham, followed by a mostly-distinguished turn for Aston Villa that saw him acquit himself well in the UEFA Cup.

He’s also seen trouble. As Away From The Numbers notes, he was a member of West Ham’s “Baby Bentley” boys in the 2006-07 season, criticized for losing focus on the game over the money and the lifestyle and barely escaped relegation. He got into a fight with manager Martin O’Neill in Aston Villa and only avoided the sack because O’Neill got it first. He got relegated with Bolton and left for Ipswich, a club he left in three months after finding himself on the fringes. At his worst, he has been sullen and lacks commitment. But he claims despite his slips, the best is ahead of him. Can he seize a second chance in Vancouver?

He’s got something to prove. But so do the Whitecaps. With Barry Robson having quietly left over the winter, the ‘Caps have walked a way from a sizable investment in the Scot. In the second half of the season, Martin Rennie blew up the roster and brought in Robson and Kenny Miller, two players with Premier League experience. They failed to gel, and the Whitecaps almost missed the playoffs, squandering the promise of the first half of the year. It mirrors Mustapha Jarju, a complete bomb brought in for big money by Tommy Soehn in July 2011.

My main thought when Robson walked, other than seriously wondering whether it should have been Miller, is this: How the Whitecaps can absorb so many transfer misses? How many times can they afford to drop money on a player with no return? (The club has pared down its operations this off-season, cutting the women’s senior team and replacing many of their paid media staff with unpaid interns.)

That’s why people are wary of Nigel Reo-Coker. They’ve been burned too many times before. Can this work out?

The good news is that, as Reo-Coker says all the right things, the Whitecaps are doing all the right things. Reo-Coker will not be a designated player, which means he won’t carry the same expectations that Robson and Miller had. Y.P. Lee was an amazing success under these circumstances, as was Andy O’Brien. He will start the season with the ‘Caps, a positive because European players traditionally find it hard to adjust when they stroll in halfway through the season, and that certainly happened with Robson and Miller. He’s only 28, which means there is every chance of him playing a long and fulfilling career here.

There may still be some whispers about Nigel Reo-Coker because of his past and the Whitecaps’ past transfer issues. But together, it’s possible that this time player and club might not have to just stonewall the skeptics.

They might be able to prove them wrong.