Middlesbrough vs Norwich: Jonathan Woodgate on the threshold of realising dream with first love

Woodgate's second spell with his hometown club could result in promotion to the Premier League

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The Independent Football

Jonathan Woodgate walked towards the double doors inside the Bernabeu Stadium on his first day as a Real Madrid player and threw them open. It was an act of exuberance any player would be forgiven following his move to one of the world’s elite clubs.

On the other side of the door was Zinedine Zidane, then one of the greatest players in the world, holding a cup of coffee and a croissant. The doors only just missed. “He must have thought I was a competition winner!” says Woodgate.

It has been a bit like that throughout Woodgate’s career, coming close to greatness but never quite getting there. From Leeds, then Newcastle, Madrid, his hometown club Middlesbrough, Spurs, Stoke and then back home once more, there remains a feeling of regret.

He was arguably the pick of English central defenders in a period when, unlike now, the nation was blessed with pillars to build team’s around.

Madrid paid Newcastle £13.5m for him back in 2004. He stayed for three years but it was a spell riddled with injuries and he regrets not returning after a loan spell at Middlesbrough to prove his worth. Instead, he moved to the Riverside permanently. It was his first love. He had stood on the terraces with his dad at Ayresome Park.

It has been a fine career. He helped Leeds fight for the Champions League and Newcastle to the semi-final of the Uefa Cup. He won the League Cup with Tottenham in 2008, when he scored the winning goal and, in 2012, once more returned to the North-east.

On Monday, at 35, he will be trying to open a bright new chapter for Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off final against Norwich City at Wembley. There has been no decision yet about his involvement next season.

“Getting the club back into the Premier League would be one of the best achievements of my career, among the top three,” he adds. “It would be a fantastic achievement for the town. Everyone criticises the town and the people. They say it is a bad area, well it isn’t, it is a lovely area and I love it.

“You can always look back and think, ‘What if I didn’t come back too early from this injury or that?’ I was always too keen to get back and it killed me a bit. It was eagerness to play. I don’t look back and say, ‘What if?’ You can’t turn it back, but it wasn’t as fulfilled as I wanted it to be.”

His current manager, Aitor Karanka, is instilling a sense of pride among the players at the Riverside.  “He has brought a winning mentality,” Woodgate says. “He has upped a lot of players’ performances. He has made players think they can be really good – he tells us, ‘If you make one mistake or miss one pass, keep striving to do better’.” Which Woodgate still is, to his credit.