Hope is restored as Woodgate makes up for all the lost years

Click to follow
The Independent Online

That Beatles hat atop a mop of long hair that Jonathan Woodgate appeared in after the game suggested he was in a time warp. A kind of footballing version of the time-travelling detective in BBC's Life on Mars perhaps? Indeed, there must be a part of the central defender whose only desire is to rewind the years and obliterate those recurring injuries and off-field indiscretions.

You have to return to the pre-Eriksson era to recall when Woodgate made his first international appearance. It was in 1999, at the end of his debut season at a thriving Leeds United, alongside Sol Campbell and his now Middlesbrough club manager, Gareth Southgate, in a trio of centre-backs selected by the then England coach, Kevin Keegan. Sven Goran Eriksson later named him to start in a friendly against Portugal in 2002. However, he was thwarted by the FA from involvement in the World Cup of that year following the much-publicised court case involving him and Lee Bowyer, though he did subsequently make appearances in European Championship qualifiers against Slovakia and Macedonia.

Back to last Wednesday and the friendly with Spain, and more than six years on from that England debut he was rewarded with only his sixth England appearance. It explains why, at 27, there remains much for Steve McClaren to learn, both about him and, for that matter, another player for whom injury has devastatingly curtailed his career, Kieron Dyer, at a year older.

Though both were eager to rediscover their England careers, these opponents would not have been what either player would have selected in order to impress. In that respect, Woodgate has divided loyalties: Real Madrid, the club who bought the former Leeds player for £13.4 million from Newcastle and still own his registration; and Middlesbrough, where he is on loan, and for whom he has performed with the distinction and consistency required to force his way back into England contention.

Woodgate, who succeeded Darren Anderton as the game's "Sicknote", has played in 23 of Boro's 30 fixtures this season, and, understandably, Southgate is determined to acquire him on a permanent basis. That has not necessarily coincided with Woodgate's plans. He had initially hoped the sortie back to his home-town club would help convince Real's coach, Fabio Cappello, that his future was at the Bernabeu. However, if that already appeared unlikely enough, particularly given the Spanish club's claims earlier this week that they had sold him to Boro - claims emphatically denied by Woodgate - the concept will not have been enhanced by a display on Wednesday which, though assured enough at times, also exposed his vulnerabilities.

Deployed as understudy to John Terry on the left-hand side of the centre-back pairing with his former Leeds partner Rio Ferdinand, Woodgate was required to duel more with the electrifying David Villa than the former Liverpool striker Fernando Morientes, a prospect which no defender would elect as his first preference.

Essentially, Woodgate is solid enough when facing up directly to a team attacking through the centre. He reads the game astutely and can bring the ball out of defence smoothly and intelligently. But if there is a weakness, it is that he can be exposed once the ball escapes to the flanks, as we witnessed when Villa capitalised on Woodgate's relative lack of mobility to create space and deliver the left-wing cross which led to Andres Iniesta's winning goal. That was in the 63rd minute. Two minutes later, the centre-back was substituted for Jamie Carragher.

Woodgate, who had spent two seasons predominantly as a witness to Spanish club football rather more than as a participant, will have known all about the wiles of the Valencia player, one of a Luis Aragones starting XI who were all home-based La Liga players. He admits: "I could have done a lot better on the goal. Apart from that, I thought I did OK. But it was a mistake, and obviously you are judged. I set myself high standards."

Captain Terry, who was a non-playing substitute here, will no doubt return for the qualifying game against Israel in Tel Aviv on 24 March, alongside Ferdinand, with the Boro man being restored to the central defenders' pool, which also includes Carragher, Michael Dawson, and (when fit) Ledley King.

But for a player recovering lost time, Wednesday will have been satisfying enough. There have been times when Woodgate will have wondered if he would ever return to the international fold. Now, after only a dozen appearances in the all-white of Madrid, that one appearance in the white and blue of England will have yielded him renewed belief in his own capabilities.

Comments