Belated birthday party began with wine, moved on to lager and lap-dancing and ended in blood

Leeds footballers' verdict: The fight
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The Independent Online

On a routine night for students at the Majestyk in Leeds, Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, two Premiership footballers, were searching around for some recreation.

Their match the following Saturday against Manchester United had been cancelled so there was just Thursday and Friday morning training – six hours of work – to occupy them before a long weekend break in January 2000.

Mr Bowyer's 23rd birthday celebrations had been curtailed eight days earlier and, after a day playing computer games with his teammates Michael Bridges and Harry Kewell, he was intent on renewing them.

He must have cut a curious sight. The streets were full of casually dressed students but he had changed into black Armani jeans, Gucci shoes and an £800 Prada leather jacket he had worn only five times. He was not wearing socks – a fashion statement he'd picked up from the London scene.

Mr Bowyer's night had started by 9.30pm with a walk to Mr Bridges' house and, a glass of wine later, he was in Leeds city centre within the hour. His intentions were confirmed to his girlfriend, Michelle, by 10.48pm. His text message was clear: "Don't wait up".

Woodgate was less accustomed to nightclubbing in Leeds but, independently of Mr Bowyer, he decided to line up an evening in the city with his Middlesbrough friends. He paid £136 for the night to accommodate Neale Caveney, Paul Clifford and two more of their group, Anthony Robinson and Jamie Hewison, at the Leeds Marriott hotel.

As the two groups gravitated towards their evening's high point at the Majestyk, it was the Middlesbrough men – and particularly Mr Hewison – who indulged most. After all, they had their friend, Woody, to bankroll them.

The Woodgate group alighted at Yates' Wine Lodge, where they downed five £15 rounds of Mules and Bacardi Breezers in pint glasses. Woodgate offered the DJ £20 to let Mr Hewison sing along with West Life's "Flying without Wings" after last orders. The answer was no and Mr Hewison wasn't pleased. "I tried to calm him down but he seemed more drunk than the rest of us," Woodgate told the jury during the trial.

Then they visited the Square on the Lane pub – where Woodgate had five or six bottles of the vodka-based drink Mule – and the Observatory pub for bottles of designer lager before hitting DV8, a lap-dancing bar.

By 11pm, with the thrills of lap dancing evidently extinguished and Mr Hewison expelled from the Observatory, they pitched up at the Majestyk. They must have been short of recreation – the club is almost lifeless before midnight. Only Woodgate's cachet got Mr Hewison past the bouncers and into the VIP area. Mr Bowyer's group, which included Mr Kewell and Mr Bridges, and the Leeds reserve striker Tony Hackworth, were celebrating the birthday of another footballer there with champagne.

It didn't take much for tempers to fray. Mr Hewison "took exception" to one group of students "looking over to see the football players" and approached them with a beer bottle, one witness testified.

He was wrestled to the floor and Woodgate, again the peacemaker, told the students: "There'll be no trouble." Mr Hewison was told to leave the club, shortly after midnight, to Woodgate's exasperation.

Sarfraz Najeib had been coaxed into Leeds by his brother Shazad and two friends earlier that night and was also ready to leave, since his group had a university lecture the following day. Fatefully, they surfaced with Woodgate and his friends outside, setting in motion a chain of events that ended with Mr Najeib spending eight days in hospital.

At best, the Asians paused to watch an argument between Mr Hewison and an irritated Woodgate. At worst, they taunted Mr Hewison for his apparent inability to hold his drink.

One of the group struck a blow to the back of Mr Najeib's head, knocking him to the ground and dislodging his glasses. Mr Najeib saw red. He shouted "You bastard" and ran at the group, appearing to punch or push one.

Within moments, the students, who had taken no alcohol, were racing across City Square, seeking the refuge of their car a few streets away with Woodgate, Clifford and between three and eight others in pursuit.

For Mr Najeib, escape was futile. His clumsy gait, mocked by his pursuers, allowed them to catch him within a minute and send him crashing into a wall and industrial bin. At least six people saw Mr Najeib being chased, with Woodgate clearly identified. A student saw "a group of men in a semi-circle around something at the top of Mill Hill". It was Mr Najeib, probably already unconscious.

Woodgate, said one witness, had jumped on his body, landing with both feet. Injuries later showed the mark of a heel that had come down "with force" on his head. But the identification of Woodgate was confused and the jury concluded it could not link him with the attack.

More conclusive was the evidence of Clifford biting Mr Najeib on the right cheek. Dental tests showed that the chance of the teeth not being Clifford's were one in a billion.

Mr Najeib's brother Shazad was also punched. Two faint flecks of his blood were later found on the cuff of Mr Bowyer's Prada jacket, though this was not conclusive evidence of involvement. He could have embraced somebody who was involved, his barrister said.

A 23-year-old woman identified Woodgate in a group that slowed from running to a walking pace as they passed her. Mr Bowyer jolted her, turning her sideways, and scowled darkly, she said. Her story also proved inconclusive.

While Mr Bowyer returned to the Majestyk alone, the Woodgate group was collected by Michael Duberry, who had missed the night out because he was playing for the Leeds reserve team. At Mr Duberry's house at 1am, a mobile telephone call to Woodgate from his teammate, Mr Bridges, who with Mr Kewell was not involved in the incident, confirmed the worst. "The lad's in a bad way," Woodgate said after ending the call. "He's half dead."

An eerie atmosphere fell, as Clifford, "upset and emotional", took the news badly. "You're lying," he allegedly told Woodgate. "You didn't do this."

The footballers did not assist the police investigation. They refused to attend ID parades on advice from the football club and allegedly handed police different shoes to those they wore on the night. Woodgate later admitted lying to police to protect the identity of his friends. Mr Bowyer steadfastly refused to answer questions.

Amid weeks of conflicting evidence, the only evidence the jury could be sure of was Clifford's teeth marks and CCTV cameras, sited outside the Observatory pub, which had captured Woodgate, Clifford and Caveney pursuing their quarry through the social throng, towards a dark back street.

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