Football: Polish of mature Woodgate

Nick Townsend finds one bright spot amid the Bulgarian gloom
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The Independent Online
AS A TINNY, taped rendition of the National Anthem blared across the Bulgarska Armia Stadium, a young man inspected his new environment with an expression that suggested exhilaration, not apprehension.

His apparent insouciance, as he chatted with his Leeds team-mate David Batty between anthems might well have been masking a million fears, but you suspect not. He had spoken of not being "fazed" by the whole experience and when a player can enter the international arena determined to enjoy the experience that half the battle is already won.

If ever there was a 19-year-old footballer destined to assimilate himself comfortably into the rigours of world football it was Jonathon Woodgate. But here is the teenager that his club manager David O'Leary threatened to quit over if Leeds did not satisfy his financial demands. "He has a fantastic temperament for someone so young," the Irishman had endorsed the defender, sentiments at odds with the many observers in Bulgaria who gave a quizzical look when Kevin Keegan announced his team which included Woodgate but not the stylish Rio Ferdinand.

Not yet a season into his Leeds career, he is so new to the professional game that the Middlesbrough-born defender doesn't even have his details recorded fully in the 1998-99 Rothman's Football Yearbook. Height and weight are left blank.

Now we know, of course, that he is blessed with all the attributes of a modern central defender. Tall, athletic-looking, but agile and balanced, and with the pace that enabled him to dash back and relieve the reportedly Tottenham-bound Milen Petrov of the ball after Bulgaria had seemingly capitalised on Michael Gray's error on the left flank.

A less composed young man might have opted for a less courageous course of action than the challenge from round the back of the Bulgarian: because had Petrov elected to dive there was no knowing how the referee, Mario van der Ende, would have reacted. It was at that moment that Woodgate came of age. With his installation as Keegan's eighth new cap there would be no opening of the floodgates.

There will be tougher examinations ahead, of course, but you imagine that with his tidy, rather than exaggerated, style Woodgate will maintain his equilibrium. As the game progressed, Woodgate began to move forward with burgeoning confidence and it was his pass that led to Teddy Sheringham going close. The greatest surprise was that he was substituted, although Keegan stressed it was for purely tactical reasons.

Only a few hours later he signed a new four-year contract with Leeds, earning him around pounds 2.5m over the next five years. "I still feel as though I am walking on air," he said. It has been the greatest day of my life. When I looked around and saw the great players alongside me I felt very humble. But they were fantastic. It's great to get my first cap. I hope I can go all the way to 100."

It was his former manager, George Graham, who predicted that he would be the youngster with the most potential to make the grade at first team level, although as he did so the strict disciplinarian also demanded that he did something about his bleached blond hair. "George called me a Spice Boy and told me to get rid of it," he recalled. "He wanted big defenders to look mean and moody." In the event Graham departed and the hair has remained dyed. One of the first actions O'Leary took was to promote the member of Leeds' 1997 FA Youth Cup-winning side to the first team.

That more is to come looks certain. Whether Moore is yet to come in a manifestation of England's late, great Bobby is perhaps demanding a little too much, but with O'Leary to guide him on the club front and Keegan to develop him on the international stage, anything is possible.

"Wood you believe it?" a daily paper headline chortled on Wednesday morning.

Now it can be said. Yes, you certainly would.

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