From village idiot to galactico: a journey to confound sceptics

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The Independent Football

Jonathan Woodgate's nickname in the Leeds United dressing-room was Village - short for village idiot. These days, he is called a Galactico - short for very famous and very wealthy footballer.

Jonathan Woodgate's nickname in the Leeds United dressing-room was Village - short for village idiot. These days, he is called a Galactico - short for very famous and very wealthy footballer.

When so many cameras were last pointed in Woodgate's direction it was December 2001, the collapse of the second of the two trials he faced for affray after the student, Sarfraz Najeib, was beaten up beneath the steps of the Majestyk nightclub in Leeds. Then, it seemed he might never kick a football again. His cheekbones poked through sallow skin, his weight had collapsed and while his co-accused, Lee Bowyer, somehow managed to produce displays that drove Leeds to the semi-finals of the European Cup, Woodgate found it mentally impossible to train.

That he would, three-and-a-half years later, be signed by Real Madrid and be considered, when fit, probably the best central defender in the country would have appeared remarkable to those at Hull Crown Court. Instead, it is Bowyer's career that has dribbled away into insignificance.

Woodgate's redemption has been as dramatic as his fall. Despite the £14m Real Madrid offered, despite the debilitating injuries that cost him 91 of the 128 games Newcastle played following his signing from Leeds, his manager Sir Bobby Robson was adamantly against letting him go. "If I was the chairman, I would have offered him a new contract," Robson said yesterday. But transfer policy at St James' Park, like so much else, has been taken over by his chairman, Freddy Shepherd.

The deal is eerily similar to the one that sent Woodgate to Tyneside in January 2003. Then, as now, he was sold behind his manager's back with Terry Venables being given assurances by his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, that Woodgate was inviolable. His sale for £9m smashed their relationship and it was also the one departure those in the Revie Stand could not forgive.

Aside from one bizarre incident in which he managed to drive a glass into his own face in a bar in Ibiza, Woodgate's time on Tyneside passed happily; the only headlines he made off the pitch were for falling in love with the Big Brother winner, Kate Lawler, who shares his passion for dance. "He was always wonderful to play with," said his central defensive partner, Andy O'Brien. "Not just because of what he did but because afterwards, when he was interviewed, he would always praise you or give you some other piece of encouragement." The Sunderland manager, Mick McCarthy, a central defender himself, thought Woodgate was the best player in that position in England, better than Rio Ferdinand but less regarded because he lacked Ferdinand"s elegance.

It is the injuries - the torn hamstrings, the ripped thigh muscles, the hernias, that will most concern his new manager, Jose Camacho, rather than the 100 hours of community service, the broken jaw sustained in a Middlesbrough pub and tales of him setting fire to £20 notes, which are a rare enough commodity in Teesside.

And yet despite this, the judgement of Keith Sykes, Woodgate's coach at the Marton Football Academy, appears sound. "He was a good boy, who always tried hard." Woodgate was never thought of as particularly exceptional, although in the space of one year, 1999, he went from Leeds' youth team to becoming a full international.

His upbringing was lower middle class in the Teesside suburb of Nunthorpe; his father was a plumber and his mother a solicitors' clerk. Woodgate was a nice lad but one described by his own defence counsel as "two short planks and thick ones". And yet despite his wealth that was estimated at his trial as £10m, he was reluctant to leave and was forever being dragged back to the darker haunts of the town by very questionable friends and his own questionable loyalty. He turned down both Middlesbrough's and Manchester United's academies to remain at Marton and David O'Leary's orders to move closer to Leeds were always ignored.

Wonderfully talented, hemmed in by injuries, dragged down by old friends he could not escape, potentially an England regular for the next decade, now transferred while unfit to one of Europe's most glamorous clubs. Woodgate must hope his ending is happier than Paul Gascoigne's.

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