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 Jonathan Woodgate worth waiting for

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Andy Booth
Andy Booth

Number of posts : 559
Age : 33
Registration date : 2007-06-11

PostSubject: Jonathan Woodgate worth waiting for   Mon Mar 24 2008, 05:03

Jonathan Woodgate worth waiting for

A host of horrific injuries stalled the defender’s career, but now he is fit and ready to fire for England this week

As pot-hunting goes, it will take some beating. Just 27 days after joining Tottenham, Jonathan Woodgate picked up his first trophy in 10 years as a professional and was acclaimed as man of the match in the Carling Cup final.

Few will begrudge him his overdue taste of success after a career dogged by wretched luck with injuries. The centre-half they call Woody was feted as the true leader of the team when he first played for Real Madrid in 2005. Subsequently, however, he was named the worst signing of the 21st century by readers of Marca, Spain’s biggest-selling sports paper, after fitness problems restricted him to 12 appearances in two years at the Bernabeu.

Bad luck has been the way of it for the most part since David O’Leary and Kevin Keegan first recognised Woodgate’s precocious talent and had him playing for Leeds and England in his teens. Given that his international debut was in June 1999, when John Terry was in Chelsea’s reserves, he might have had 60 caps by now, instead of six, had his body not betrayed him time and again. Inevitably there are regrets, but Woodgate is fit and in form, back in the England squad and anxious to make up for lost time. He is playing probably better than ever – witness his mastery of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba at Wembley – and believes he is the equal of any of the central defenders available to Fabio Capello, for whom he played at Real.

Fluent in Spanish (it was always his intention to play in La Liga, and he started learning the language while at Newcastle), he is able to communicate with Capello and Juande Ramos through that medium, and is therefore uniquely qualified to comment on both. That he converses more with Ramos than Capello is not due entirely to the daily involvement of club football. The new England manager is not one to shoot the breeze.

After a career that had taken him full circle – he started with Middlesbrough as a schoolboy and returned via Leeds, Newcastle and Madrid – Woodgate is happy to be back with a top club, content in the knowledge that he has more chance of achieving his ambitions at Spurs than he had at the Riverside. The Carling Cup is just the start. “My first trophy,” he says. “Let’s hope there’s many more to come. It was a great occasion, and to score the winning goal in a cup final was brilliant. They made me man of the match, but I probably got that because of the goal. There were a lot of good performances that day, not just mine.”

Handsome vindication of his decision to move on? “I suppose you could say that, but Middlesbrough have been in a few finals in recent years, and I don’t want to knock them. It’s my hometown club, I wanted to go there and I really enjoyed it. They looked after me really well in the year I was injured and got me fit again and playing regularly. Gareth Southgate [Boro’s manager] was brilliant, he gave me my confidence back and really helped me.

“In the end, the club accepted an offer, which made it easier to leave. To be honest, I did want to go and Gareth was prepared to let it happen because he had David Wheater coming through. Wheater is a good player [good enough to to be named in Capello’s 30-strong squad last Thursday] and they didn’t need me with him and Robert Huth around. They could afford to take the money [£8m] for me. I wanted to push my career forward. At Middlesbrough there was no European football and I needed that to push myself on to another level. I didn’t want to stay up there and have an easy life, and there was a danger of falling into that comfort zone. I was a local lad, so I was travelling in to work from the place I’d always called home. That was a lovely feeling, but I had to move on to get the best out of myself.” Tottenham provided the stimulating environment he wanted. “I’ve got the winning mentality back again,” he adds. “It’s what we had at Real Madrid – winning, winning, winning – and it’s the same here because Juande Ramos instils it in you. Winning is everything. That’s how it should be for a professional footballer.”

Woodgate had not met Ramos in Spain. “I didn’t know him personally, but obviously I was aware of what a good job he’d done at Seville. I speak Spanish pretty well, so we can understand each other a bit better. Sometimes I can tell the other players what he means. His English is good, but sometimes it is hard to understand every single word, and if he wants me to explain something to the others, it’s no problem.”

Since the Carling Cup final, Spurs’ results have been patchy, but there is no question of the players switching off. “Because we’ve won a trophy and qualified for Europe again, people are saying we’re not bothered now, but that’s far from the truth,” he says. “We want to win as many games as we can to push ourselves up the league. Anything else would be bad professionalism. Mid-table is the best we can do this time, which is a massive disappointment for this club. Maybe the fans are happy that we’ve won a cup, but our league position is not good enough, and that’s how you should be judged.

We’ve got the players to do a lot better next season, and I’m sure the manager will add to the squad in the summer. It needs freshening up. Pressure for your place brings that bit extra out of you.”

The feeling took hold at Wembley a month ago that Spurs were a different proposition when Woodgate and Ledley King were fit and in harness. “Ledley is a top player,” says Woodgate. “I first played with him in an under16s game at Lilleshall [the now defunct Football Association national school], and I’ve known and rated him since then. I’ve been in a few England squads with him, and he’s as good as any centre-half I’ve played with. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s good on the ball – he’s got everything a centre-half could ask for. I enjoy playing with him.”

They have fitness concerns, as well as ability, in common, legitimate doubts having been expressed about King’s ability to play more than one game each week. “I speak to Ledley about it, knowing it’s not a nice subject,” says Woodgate. “I’m sure he feels like I used to: ‘Effing hell, is there any chance that this is ever going to stop?’ There’s nothing worse than when someone says to you, ‘Are you injured again?’ The ‘again’ bit really kills you. When I was at Middlesbrough, I nearly lost it once over that. I’d had a whack on my shin and I couldn’t walk. I had an injection to try to play, but I couldn’t.

“As I walked out of the treatment room, wearing a special protective boot, this steward said, ‘What a shock’. I knew what he meant, and came very close to doing something I would have regretted. When you’re injured, there’s nothing worse than people coming out with sly comments like that. It’s horrible, it does your head in. I’m fine now, I’ve just played five games in 15 days so there’s no problem, and I’m sure Ledley will be all right, given time.”

Fit and in form, King is one of his rivals for a place in the England team. “There are a lot of us,” Woodgate says, reeling off the names of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Matthew Upson, Joleon Lescott, Sol Campbell, Wes Brown and Micah Richards. “I’ve got to believe I’m right up there, but the ones who are challenging for the title and playing in the Champions League do have an advantage. They play in bigger games and that helps you to maintain a high standard. You’re playing against the top strikers, and have the chance to show you can do the job. Europe is essential for international players. Next season we need to push for a place in the Champions League. It’s not going to be easy, but under this manager I’m sure we can challenge for it.”

Of his England career, he says: “I haven’t really had one. Since my first start I’ve missed four major tournaments [two World Cups and two European championships] through injury. All those opportunities wasted, what a nightmare. But I’m still only 28, so it’s not over yet.”

Recalled to the squad last month for Capello’s first match in charge, Woodgate was left on the bench when Upson deputised for the convalescent Terry. “I’ll always be disappointed when I don’t play, but I wasn’t about to go banging on the manager’s door,” he says. Woodgate knew better. “I played under Capello at Real Madrid, and you don’t mess with him. Whatever he says, goes. Full stop. He’s a good manager, there’s no doubt about that. His record proves it, and I’m sure he’ll bring success to the England team.”

What was he like? “He doesn’t care what anyone else says, it’s his way or the highway. He doesn’t care about egos, about big players or reputations. If there’s a decision to be made, he’ll make it without thinking twice about repercussions. His was the hardest preseason I’ve ever done. I was fit, I played in all eight preseason games, then he made the decision. I was told, ‘Look, it’s going to be hard for you to get in the team here, you might play the odd game, but that’s all’. It was a bit of a shock. I could have stayed another year, but I needed to play regularly so I joined Boro on loan, knowing I’d be in the side every week. The season I left, Real won the league. It will always be my biggest regret that I didn’t win things there because I wasn’t fit.”

He might be tough and unemotional, but the Spartan nature of Capello’s England regime has been exaggerated. Nobody is addressed by pet names such as JT or Stevie G any more but surnames are not used, as some of our more fanciful newspapers have suggested. Much had been made of a new code of conduct, but the rules were no more than common sense, Woodgate felt. “Capello is big on setting standards, but professionals have those everywhere,” he says. “Like most managers, his starting point is a strong back four. He works a lot on that.” Is it fair to call him defence-orientated? “Yes, he stresses that if you keep a clean sheet, you’ll always get the chance to score.”

Ramos is “a lot more offensive. He wants us to push on and score as many goals as possible. His players have to be adaptable, to fit into any system he chooses”. Teesside Man was also having to adapt off the field, where he found London property prices “a joke”. The capital has its compensations, however. Expensively ensconced in Canary Wharf, he is enjoying theatreland. “The last show I saw was Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It’s not my era, but I know the songs because my mum used to play them.”

Now we know how Woody learned to Walk Like A Man.

Woodgate’s rollercoaster ride

Born in Middlesbrough in 1980, Woodgate progressed through the ranks of Leeds United to become a regular first-team starter under David O’Leary before his 19th birthday. He was handed his first England cap by Kevin Keegan in June 1999. The 1-1 draw in Bulgaria was his first of six appearances

Off-the-field incidents threatened to ruin his career. In December 2001, he was cleared of grievous bodily harm with intent in relation to an assault on an Asian student but was ordered to serve 100 hours’ community service after being found guilty of affray. Four months later, he was ruled out for the season with a broken jaw suffered during ‘horseplay’ with a friend

In January 2003, Leeds accepted a £9m bid from Newcastle and Woodgate spent a year-and-a-half on Tyneside. He then moved to Real Madrid but played only 12 times because of injuries
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