Ten years ago, Jonathan Woodgate was sat in the Cleveland Tontine restaurant with his friend. Close by was Steve Gibson, the chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club. Woodgate, then 22 and a bit more impetuous, scribbled down his name, number and "Is there any chance of signing me?" on a napkin. He put it on Gibson's table.
No one quite knows for certain where the note ended up – for the sake of this tale, let us imagine not in a bin – but last week, as Woodgate prepared to go out for a run, his phone rang with an unknown number.
"I didn't know who it was so I nearly didn't answer it," he revealed. "He just said, 'It's me, Steve Gibson, do you want to come and play for Middlesbrough again?'
"Maybe he had just found the serviette and that is why he rang!
"I had to think about it because it wasn't an easy decision to make and he understood where I was coming from. I rang him back later and said 'Let's meet up.' I could have stayed in the Premier League but coming back to Boro was a big pull for me. I want to try and get them back in the Premier League. I will just be a normal player, one of the lads, grafting on the training pitch and trying to win games on a Saturday, and I will be back close to my family."
It is a good story with a happy ending, told amid much laughter as Woodgate was unveiled yesterday at the club's Hurworth training ground after signing a three-year contract. And it is time there was one of those in his career.
The 32-year-old was coveted by Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Leeds when he was a youngster at Marton FC. He chose Leeds and looked the kind of central defender England had needed for years. He moved to Newcastle for £9m when the Elland Road dream was unravelling but from there injury took hold. It has ravaged his career, at Real Madrid, Spurs and for his country, and, amid the good mood and genuine humour, is a well of regret.
"The club where there is the biggest 'what if' is obviously Real Madrid but I cannot dwell on that and I have to put that out of my mind," he added. "I do not even like talking about Real Madrid and all that s***. It does my head in. I was there years ago. I was at Stoke last season. In my mind, let's just forget about all that. I get embarrassed about it to be honest."
He was sent off on his debut at the Santiago Bernabeu after scoring an own goal. It was a highlight.
"To be honest, that was a good point in my career because I was fit again and the fans even clapped me off," he said. "Ronaldo came up to me after the game and said, 'No, don't worry about it. You are playing,' and I said, 'Yeah, you're right.' We won that game 4-1. It might have been different if we had got beaten. What was worse than that [game] was being injured, the recurrence of injuries was the real killer. There are a lot of what-ifs, so I don't really look back on my career because of that."
Turning out for Stoke last year reminded everyone he can still play. "21 games," he spits out quickly. "And I was available for 41."
It makes this, effectively, his third spell at Middlesbrough (on loan from Madrid, and then signed permanently from them) less of a gamble. Tony Mowbray, the Middlesbrough manager, spoke of another five years left in his career.
Woodgate seems hungry because, as he says: "I've had good moves but not a great career. It might be an honest thing to say but it's right though, isn't it? What have I won? Not much."
But you did win the Carling Cup with Tottenham.
"Yeah, I did."
And you scored the winning goal.
"Yeah, but it went in off my nose."
Woody: Career stats
Born 22 January, 1980, Nunthorpe
1998-2003 Leeds United; 142 games, five goals
2003-04 Newcastle United; 37 games, no goals
2004-06 Real Madrid; 14 games, one goal
2006-08 Middlesbrough; 52 games, no goals
2008-11 Tottenham Hotspur; 65 games, three goals
2011-12 Stoke City; 21 games, no goals
England Eight caps, no goals (debut v Bulgaria (a), June 1999)
Honours 2008 League Cup (scored in final for Spurs v Chelsea)
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