Leeds players to face civil action from Najeib

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The Independent Online

The running joke at Leeds United's Thorpe Arch training ground on Monday morning was about Jonathan Woodgate turning up with paint on his hands.

The £13,000-a-week defender had started making inroads into a 100-hour Community Punishment Order the previous day, a penalty handed down after he was convicted of affray for chasing a young student towards a beating.

A hospital visit was also being planned that day for Woodgate's co-defendant, Lee Bowyer, who would soon be posing with sick children for television news cameras in an attempt to salvage his image, which has been battered despite his acquittal.

Officially, both players have been punished – and Mr Bowyer, 24, has been transfer-listed for refusing to pay an £88,000 fine, four weeks' wages. Woodgate has paid a fine of eight weeks' wages.

But their Leeds colleagues made their views on the position of the pair quite clear at Wednesday evening's home match against Everton, using every available opportunity to salute them as they watched from a television gantry. And although straw polls in the Leeds media suggest most fans want Mr Bowyer to pay the fine, the first chant of the night – a relentless "Bowyer, Bowyer" – echoed intermittently throughout the match, suggesting support from that quarter, too.

More surprisingly, the club still allowed Mr Bowyer into the Leeds dressing room before, during and after the match, which is unusual for transfer-listed players who tend to be sent to the Coventry of the reserve team squad.

All that apparent sympathy contrasted with comments from David O'Leary in last week's edition of the News of the World. Even last night, the Leeds manager was on ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald indicating that Mr Bowyer's acquittal was not entirely the end of the story.

Mr O'Leary told Martin Bashir: "He [Mr Bowyer] said he had been found not guilty and I said 'Yes in court, but ... going by the court's evidence you were on the street, out of your mind drunk, running around. That's not what I want my athletes doing on the streets of Leeds ... there's no excuse for it'."

But the opinions voiced by Mr O'Leary in the newspaper certainly appear at odds with the way that the players have been accepted back into the fold.

In truth, if any Leeds player has the bearing of a man being punished, it is Michael Duberry, the defender who changed his evidence to implicate Woodgate during the trial.

He heaped yet more embarrassment on the club with indications that life had been made hard for him after his testimony. Woodgate apparently told him: "You killed me." Mr O'Leary was rather kinder to Woodgate, describing him almost affectionately as "daft as a brush", a phrase once used to depict Paul Gascoigne.

But if this mood of forgiveness suggested that the assault case known as the "Leeds United trial" was considered closed at the club, Sarfraz Najeib's family shattered the illusion yesterday by raising the spectre of a third – civil – trial to examine whether Woodgate, Mr Bowyer and others beat the 20-year-old half to death.

The feeling that Mr Najeib's plight had been disregarded was voiced in the House of Lords, yesterday, where the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia accused the players of being the "bin Ladens of British football". This after a withering attack on Leeds United's "trivial" sanctions by Gerald Kaufman MP, also under parliamentary privilege, in the Commons three days ago.

A Najeib family press conference at Leeds Town Hall – for which Mr Najeib was persuaded, against his inclination, to make a first return to Leeds since the night of the attack nearly two years ago – also posed new questions about the judgement of Peter Ridsdale, Leeds United's chairman.

The family said he had offered no letter of apology since Woodgate's conviction. "There has been no condemnation of the act itself," said Suresh Grover, their spokesman. "That's been heartbreaking for the family. Mr Najeib thinks his life is worth more than that."

The club and its players do now have reason to fear Mr Najeib, whose own return to sports training did not resume on Monday because his injuries prevent him from picking up a badminton racquet again.

Success for the action in a civil court, where a lower burden of proof is needed, seems possible. Paul Clifford, one of the players' friends who was with them on the night of the assault, was jailed for six years for grievous bodily harm and affray at the end of the trial at Hull Crown Court.