UGO EHIOGU’S sudden death at the age of 44 shook the world of football and, closer to home, Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp.
The Blades skipper, 31, is the only remaining player on United’s books who played with the England international defender signed by Bryan Robson in 2008. Ehiogu, aged just 44 and a married father of two, died after suffering a cardiac arrest at Tottenham’s training ground where he worked coaching the under-23s.
Sharp described Ehiogu as a “gentle giant” and credited him with providing helpful advice during what was the striker’s second spell at the club having come through the academy before being sold to Scunthorpe United.
“Ugo was an unbelievable man,” said Sharp. “He helped me a lot on and off the pitch. It was a sad, sad day when I heard what had happened.”
Ehiogu joined United on a free transfer from Rangers at a turbulent time for the Blades. Scotland international David Weir, later to become United boss for a brief spell, and Spaniard Carlos Cuellar were keeping him out of the team at Ibrox. Adjusting to life in the Championship under a highly unpopular Robson, who replaced Neil Warnock following relegation from the top tier, Bramall Lane was far from a happy place.
Indeed, his debut on a short-tempered January night, a 1-1 home draw with Watford, playing in a back four alongside Leigh Bromby, Chris Morgan and Gary Naysmith, witnessed a growing anger with Robson and continued demands for his sacking. A dismissal which arrived 16 days and three matches later.
Ehiogu, a 6ft 2ins centre-back, overcame an unsettling beginning to his career at the Lane and quickly established a rapport with appreciative Blades fans. He made 27 appearances before injury at Wolves in December of the following season signalled the end of his playing career.
A career which included four full England caps. He scored in a 3-0 friendly win against Spain at, appropriately, Villa Park, the ground where he made his name. It was Sven Goran-Erikkson’s first match in charge of the national side. Ehiogu went on to become a member of manager Peter Taylor’s coaching staff at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2013.
The last of Ehiogu’s 25 career league and cup goals and his only one for the Blades, secured three points in a 1-0 home win against Preston. He also received the fifth dismissal of his career along with Barnsley’s Anderson De Silva in a bad tempered South Yorkshire derby which the Blades won 2-1 at Oakwell.
Ehiogu established his name and reputation at Aston Villa. Signed by Ron Atkinson he made more than 300 appearances and won a League Cup medal in a 3-0 win against Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United, famously playing in a defensive partnership with Paul McGrath, Gareth Southgate and Gary Charles.
Supporters from both sides of the Second City joined together for a minute's applause at Villa Park on Sunday before the Brum derby. Birmingham City fans who couldn't get tickets and watched the match via beam back to a giant screen at St Andrews, also observed the tribute.
Ehiogu rejoined Southgate who had already moved to Middlesbrough, when then boss Robson signed him for £8million, a club record sale for Villa at the time. Whilst on Teesside Ehiogu added a second League Cup winners’ medal in 1994.
He started his professional career at West Brom and also played for Leeds on a short loan spell from Boro. Rangers fans will always remember him for his first goal at Ibrox, a spectacular overhead kick which gave the Gers a 1-0 league victory at Glasgow rivals Celtic. Then boss Walter Smith, who took Ehiogu to Scotland, recalled: “His goal against Celtic was obviously the highlight, the moment everyone remembers. I can still see the look of sheer joy on his face when the ball went into the net and he ran to our supporters to celebrate. Ugo was brought to the club because he was a top defender but there he was scoring a bicycle kick! What I’ll remember most about the big man, though, was you couldn’t meet a nicer fella.”
A comment which is a constant. Southgate, now England manager, said: “Losing him at such a young age is difficult to come to terms with. I probably played more games with Ugo than anybody else in my career. While in many ways he was a gentle giant away from football, he was a colossus on the pitch. We were prepared to put our bodies on the line for each other.
“Most importantly, he was a gentleman. He is one of those characters that people would find it difficult to have anything bad to say about.”
Ugo (Ugochuka) Ehiogu, born Hackney, November 3, 1972. Died April 21, 2017, aged 44.