Gallas is Newcastle's target as Real swoop for Woodgate

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Woodgate is this morning on the verge of becoming Real Madrid's third and most unlikely Englishman.

Jonathan Woodgate is this morning on the verge of becoming Real Madrid's third and most unlikely Englishman.

After Newcastle United agreed a fee of ¤22m (£14.9m) for the 24-year-old defender, Woodgate is expected in Madrid today for a medical. The Zarzuela Hospital that passed David Beckham and Michael Owen fit to join the ranks of the galacticos will, however, have its work cut out with Woodgate.

He is due to fly to the Spanish capital directly from Munich, where he has been undergoing treatment for a serious rupture of the thigh sustained against Chelsea in April. Since September 2002, Woodgate has suffered three hamstring injuries, two serious thigh complaints and a double hernia.

Few expect Woodgate to pass the medical, but since their attempts to prise Fabio Cannavaro from Milan appear to have run into the sand, Madrid may not mind. Woodgate was injured when Newcastle paid Leeds £9m for him in January last year, and his manager, Sir Bobby Robson, pointed out that his injury was nearly five months old and almost healed.

At first glance it would appear that Newcastle supporters would have more difficulty swallowing the sale of their best defender than they would accepting Kieron Dyer's formal apology for refusing to play out of position against Middlesbrough last Saturday.

When Woodgate played last season, Newcastle lost only twice in the Premiership and he underpinned goalless draws against Manchester United and Arsenal that gave the lie to Newcastle's reputation for fragile defending.

The rub is that Woodgate has played so very little. He started a mere 17 Premiership games last season and has been fit for 37 of the 128 matches Newcastle have played since he signed. The argument employed by Robson on the steps of St James' Park yesterday evening was the same Kevin Keegan used when Andy Cole was sold to Manchester United 10 seasons ago; the money was too good to reject.

All the more so, since Newcastle are confident of taking Chelsea's William Gallas as a replacement for £9m. Even under the rotation system applied by Claudio Ranieri, Gallas missed only nine fixtures at Stamford Bridge last season and has proved an exceptional centre-half.

"It's a huge sum of money, it's a huge opportunity for him," said Robson of Woodgate. "Do we deny him that opportunity? There is a moral issue here. Do we deny him the right to play with Owen and Beckham, with Figo and Ronaldo?"

Given Woodgate's conviction for affray, Robson's comments that "He has no other flaws in his make-up, character or body" may seem strange. However, Woodgate is essentially a good man, easily led, and his conduct since leaving Leeds for Tyneside has generally been exemplary.

Dyer, by contrast, has lurched from one crisis to another, culminating in his being dropped for refusing to play on the right flank against Middlesbrough. On Wednesday his every touch in an England shirt at St James' was howled down, and yesterday he issued an apology "sincerely regretting the whole incident".

He was unfortunate that his row with Robson at the club's training ground last Friday was caught on film. Dyer believed that by the day of the game his relationship with Robson was healing. His chairman, Freddy Shepherd, could be expected to take a far harder view.

Robson, who refused to sanction Dyer's sale last season following further misdemeanours, was again protective of someone he regards as a talented, wayward son.

"It's an unwise decision he made. I was stunned at the time," Robson said. "He has apologised, as he had to, he has done it willingly and now we get on with our lives."

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