Home-loving star landed in trouble with old friends

Leeds footballers' verdict: Jonathan Woodgate
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The Independent Online

How easily the suspicion of guilt can invest an innocent remark with sinister significance.

Jonathan Woodgate, pressed by an interviewer to divulge his musical tastes shortly before the events that led him to the dock at Hull Crown Court, revealed a passion for a particular form of nightlife.

"I go to clubs," Woodgate, who is valued at £10m, told the club magazine Leeds Leeds Leeds. "I'm a young lad, aren't I? I'm not going to live like a monk, as David O'Leary [Leeds United's manager] says. It's just natural, but you've got to know when to stop."

When asked for a question-and-answer feature in the Leeds match programme – weeks before the fateful events of January 2000 – which television programme he would record if he was going out, he nominated Crimewatch.

But behind his club image as a prankster – buckets of water were placed on top of his colleagues' doors in hotels – he was a foil to his high-rolling team-mate Lee Bowyer.

A plumber's son, Woodgate once lodged near the Leeds training ground for four months, but he couldn't stick it. "I wanted to go home," he told the trial. There, his mother, Carolyn, who worked as a legal secretary, saw to his washing – picking up the socks, underpants and trousers left on his bedroom floor and taking his designer-label clothes to the dry cleaners twice a week. "I worried about the designer stuff," she told the court.

Woodgate had joined Leeds at the age of 15, captained England's under-18s, and was barely 19 when named as a centre-back in England's side for a European Championship qualifier in Bulgaria.

And when it came to leaving the nest, he chose a £240,000 home on the same street as his parents in the Middlesbrough suburb of Nunthorpe. It was also near the easy familiarity of his primary school friends Paul Clifford and Neale Caveney, who became his co-defendants.

Caveney was employed to drive Woodgate in his Porsche, convertible BMW and 4x4 Cherokee Jeep, the court was told. All his cars have registration plates incorporating the initials JSW. Not bad for a lad who talked the Leeds first team into a whip-round to help to pay for his car tax when he was an 18-year-old apprentice player. He is now paid £13,000 a week.

Though Woodgate received a police caution at the age of 14 after admitting assault occasioning actual bodily harm, he is described by Keith Sykes, who trained him as a 12-year-old at Marton Football Club in Middlesbrough as "a quiet, well-behaved lad from a nice family who was no trouble whatsoever''.

His old hometown friendships had landed him in trouble though, and often with students. Woodgate was with Clifford, a sports science student and former boxer, at the students' union of Middlesbrough College, a Durham University affiliate, when he was banned after a fight at the bar.

His friends were also in the background during another drinking session, in April 1999, when a fight seems to have started after Gareth Cowan, a student, accidentally spilt beer on him outside the Corner House pub in Middlesbrough.

Mr Cowan declined to make a complaint so Woodgate was released without charge but the circumstances were so similar to the attack on Sarfraz Najeib that the file was passed by Cleveland Police to West Yorkshire Police, for possible use as similar-fact evidence.

At court during the first trial, Woodgate's demeanour revealed how he was coping substantially worse than Lee Bowyer with the pressure of the charges hanging over him. He testified badly, mumbling his responses in a thick Middlesbrough accent to his barrister, who famously described him as "a plank".

But by the retrial, his spirits were intact. He changed barristers and appeared in fashionable large-knotted and wide-collared shirts, laughing from the dock at Bowyer's allusions, in evidence, to his "running like a chicken" with his arms flapping, and to his endless mobile telephone calls.

At one point during the jury's evidence, Woodgate had physically to pinch himself to stop laughing at a joke he and his friends had just shared out of court. His obsessive use of the mobile phone was manifest outside the courtroom too – punctuated by requests for journalists' help on spelling for his text messages.

He took comfort in his old drinking routines throughout the trial, and on Sunday nights he was often to be found at the Dickens Inn in Middlesbrough, where one of his England shirts is framed over the bar.

Were it not for the Najeib attack nearly two years ago, he might have played at centre back for England on Saturday 24 March in the World Cup qualifier against Finland. But in the event, he spent the day in the Dickens Inn, and watched the match there with his co-defendants Clifford and Caveney, no doubt ruminating over their collective fate.