Grip tips Woodgate to challenge Terry

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The Independent Football

Jonathan Woodgate is emerging as a strong rival to John Terry to contest an England starting role at the Euro 2004 finals, if his former Leeds team-mate Rio Ferdinand's suspension is confirmed.

Woodgate has not appeared for his country since October 2002, when he was part of the ill-fated side which drew 2-2 at home to Macedonia. Indeed, he has played just three times for Sven Goran Eriksson, starting the previous Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia and coming on as a substitute against Portugal in a friendly.

However, that has been due to a run of bad injuries rather than any lack of form and Eriksson's right-hand man, Tord Grip, is now hoping the Newcastle centre-back can fulfil his potential. Grip said: "We have tried to pick Woodgate several times and he's been injured, but he has played very well recently. I think that we need four central defenders to go with us to Portugal and Sol Campbell, John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate are three good ones at least."

Terry has so far appeared to be the favourite to partner Campbell in Portugal next summer with his consistent performances for Chelsea and England over recent months.

He has started England's past five games and, in Istanbul - where Eriksson's side secured the goalless draw needed to confirm their place at the Euro 2004 finals - Terry gave an accomplished display alongside the Arsenal centre-back.

But when asked whether Terry or Woodgate was now in pole position to partner Campbell, Grip replied: "Who is actually going to play is perhaps down to their form at the time."

Either way, Grip is confident England can cope without Ferdinand if they have to, with the defender having been handed an eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test. "If Rio is away, then he is away. But then he was away against Turkey as well and we managed to play a good game and get a result there," Grip said.

Grip's vote of confidence in Woodgate certainly puts him ahead of Gareth Southgate, Matthew Upson or even Wes Brown in the race for places in this summer's final squad.

His recent form has also projected Woodgate back into the spotlight as time ticks away before Ferdinand can announce whether he intends to appeal against his suspension.

The irony is, of course, that Woodgate was himself suspended from international selection only a couple of years ago as he awaited trial on a charge of grievous bodily harm with intent following an attack on an Asian student in Leeds.

Having been cleared of that charge, his sentence of 100 hours' community service for an affray conviction ensured Woodgate remained unavailable to Eriksson until the start of last season.

Injuries have affected him since then, with hernia and hamstring problems already this season, but in nine Premiership games with Woodgate in the side, Newcastle have kept six clean sheets - and have yet to lose.