Whatever happened to Jonathan Woodgate?

Actually, after 18 injury-plagued months he is ready to play again. He talks to Patrick McCurdy in Madrid about lay-offs and why Zidane makes him laugh
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The Independent Football

Twelve minutes from the end of Real's 5-0 rout of the Americans, their coach Wanderley Luxemburgo ordered Michael Owen to warm up. Head down, shoulders hunched, Owen jogged unenthusiastically up and down the touchline. The crowd's response was rather more positive. "Ow-en, Ow-en, Ow-en," they chanted.

The Bernabeu's response eight minutes later was even more eloquent. This time Luxemburgo turned to the padded blue seats of the Real Madrid dug-out and gave Jonathan Woodgate a nod. The 25-year-old, whose only previous experience of stepping on the Bernabeu turf was 12 months ago during his awkward presentation to the media after his £13m move from Newcastle United, emerged all too appropriately from the shadows for the first time since joining the Spanish giants.

For a player who has spent 16 months on the sidelines, his warm-up was surprisingly short. Luxemburgo whispered something in his ear, Ivan Helguera clapped hands and gave him a huge smile as he came off and Woodgate was on, making his first appearance in the famous all-white shirt.

The Real faithful are not given to unnecessary expressions of emotion, but they welcomed Woodgate with a standing ovation and the biggest cheer of the night. A quick wink from Beckham and he took up his place at the centre of the back four. It was the briefest of debuts - three touches, all neat risk-free passes out of defence - but at the end the entire Real team, led by captain Raul, went over to congratulate Woodgate: he was now a fully fledged member of the Real Madrid squad.

"It was a fantastic experience for me. It was only four minutes but that's a start," Woodgate grinned afterwards. "I knew before the match that I was going to go on, but I didn't know what the reaction would be like. The atmosphere was incredible and so was the reception. I've got the shirt back at home and I'm going to have it framed.

"The last year has been a complete nightmare," he added with a slight grimace. "But now I feel like a footballer again and not someone who just lies on the massage table all day. I tell you what: when I play my first full match I'll be the happiest man in the world."

Woodgate's "nightmare" began back on April 25, 2004, 12 minutes from the end of Newcastle's 2-1 victory over Chelsea when he hobbled off the pitch with a thigh injury. "I knew it was bad-ish when I did it," he recalled this week. "I knew it was a muscle tear. But I never for the life of me thought it would last this long."

The injury meant the England international missed out on Euro 2004 and instead spent the summer receiving specialist treatment in Germany. But his career took a completely unexpected turn in August, when his agents at SFX told him that Real Madrid wanted to sign him.

The then coach Jose Antonio Camacho was the driving force behind the signing. Woodgate may have been injured, but the medical reports seemed to suggest he was just weeks away from recovery, while his references as a player were impeccable. Still looking slightly bewildered, he was unveiled as a Real player on a blisteringly hot August morning. Unable to do the normal ball-juggling routines for the assembled photographers, he simply stood and smiled guiltily.

"The hardest thing in the world for a footballer is not playing," Woodgate recalled this week. "And the fact that it happened to me when I came to a foreign club made it even worse. People just thought I didn't want to play." Still, a debut was only weeks away, or so said Real's president Florentino Perez said. But in October just six days before a specially arranged friendly against a local side, Woodgate broke down again in training as he gave chase to a forward from Real's youth team.

Unable to cope with the criticism that might be directed their way for signing a player who was clearly in no condition to play, Real opted to cloak the matter in secrecy. No mention was made of the fact that Woodgate had also ruptured the tendon in his left leg, a far more serious and complex injury than a muscle tear. Real said he would play before the end of the year ... then February ... then March ... then the end of the season. He never reappeared.

"It has been the toughest part of my career, for me and my family. When I look back I wish I hadn't tried to rush things. I just wanted to get back too soon," he said this week.

Condemned to twice-daily treatment sessions Woodgate trained alone away from the prying eyes of the media, arriving at Real's base in Las Rozas early in the morning and leaving well after the rest of the players had gone home. Polite to a fault when you did manage to track him down, he turned down all interviews saying he felt unable to say anything until he was fit again.

Did he watch his team-mates? "I went to every home game. When you're injured you don't really like watching football, but the rules at this club are you go to every game and here you abide by all the rules. Anyway, you can only learn by watching the players in your position and picking things up from the opposition too. So in the end I didn't mind."

In a wider sense, too, Woodgate now looks back on the experience and thinks he learnt from it. "You do a lot of thinking when you are injured and you look at how you can change things in your everyday life. This whole thing has made me mentally stronger and I'm used to being in difficult situations, but hopefully I've come through it and am a better and stronger person for it."

This, of course, comes from a man who has suffered a succession of injury problems since starting out in his career at Leeds United and has been involved in several unsavoury incidents off the pitch too including, most famously, a conviction for affray after an attack on an Asian student outside a night club in January 2000.

But whatever mistakes he made in the past Woodgate is clearly determined to learn from his experiences. A quotation from the American football coach Vince Lombardi is tattooed on his back. "The darkest moments of our lives are not to be buried and forgotten," it reads. "Rather they are a memory to be called upon for inspiration to remind us of the unrelenting human spirit and our capacity to overcome the intolerable."

Woodgate's past certainly does not square with the present reality. Easy-going, affable, with a wry sense of humour and a ready smile, he has won over everyone at Real from the kit man, to the president with his determination to battle back from injury and integrate fully into Spanish life.

"I've rarely seen a sportsman work with such dedication and good humour," says Jesus del Olmo, the doctor supervising the final stages of his recovery programme. "He's also just a really nice bloke."

The player himself says he now feels at home at Real. "I'm learning Spanish, I've got the slang sorted and am starting to speak more. It is just a question of practice. It helps because I walk around with a smile on my face all the time. I think I'm a lucky lad at the end of the day, so I get on with everyone."

A particular friend is Helguerra, the defender many expect Woodgate will eventually be paired alongside at the heart of Real's defence. "He's a real joker, I laugh at him everyday and he lives near to me too - he's a good geezer. Ronaldo too. He is a great player, but is also one of the nicest people you could ever want to meet and I get on with him really well. All the Brazilians, they never stop smiling, which I like because it's the best thing in the world when you are happy every day."

He is also confident he can make the grade on the pitch. "I always thought I'd end up playing abroad one day," he said. "I'm pretty good at adapting to things, I think. I'm quickish, I'm good in the air and I can pass the ball around - I've got a little bit of everything, really. "

Is he overawed by playing alongside the most star-studded side on the planet? Apparently not. "I'm not intimidated by training alongside such good players," he adds. "It's just fun. When we were training in Hungary recently, Zidane scored this stunning volley and I just thought to myself, 'My God, that was just unbelievable.' All I could do was laugh about it."

As for the danger of a recurrence of the injury, Woodgate is convinced it will not happen. "I've done it right this time," he insists. "Physically and psychologically, there is absolutely no problem. I know my head's right and I'm the one who should know. I just have to wait until the boss gives me the thumbs up. But I can promise you I am all right.

"I've got 10 more years left in the game and this is only the start. I'll only know when it's all finally over when I'm 35 and I'm sat in Ibiza on a little beach just taking it easy."