Gareth Southgate and and Andy Woodman: Contrasting futures beckon for football's unlikely double act

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It is the first night of the Oxford Literary Festival, and folk wearing tortoiseshell glasses and shapeless clothes of indeterminate colour, folk positively reeking with intellectual curiosity, are wandering the corridors of the Oxford Union looking for event No 6, Richard Hamilton in conversation with Tom Paulin on the weighty subject of James Joyce.

It is the first night of the Oxford Literary Festival, and folk wearing tortoiseshell glasses and shapeless clothes of indeterminate colour, folk positively reeking with intellectual curiosity, are wandering the corridors of the Oxford Union looking for event No 6, Richard Hamilton in conversation with Tom Paulin on the weighty subject of James Joyce.

A birdlike woman with frizzy grey hair approaches a huge man with a crew cut who is filling the doorway of a handsome panelled room. "Tom Paulin?" she asks, gesturing inside. "No, love, Gareth Southgate," he says. The big man is Southgate's driver, a former military policeman frequently employed by the Middlesbrough and England footballer to get him from A to B, or, today, from his home in Harrogate to Oxford.

It is an amusing exchange, not least because the birdlike woman probably knows as much about Gareth Southgate as the big man does about Tom Paulin. How strange that their respective worlds should ever collide. On the other hand, if ever there was a footballer likely to be addressing the Oxford Literary Festival, you wouldn't bet against it being Southgate who, in his book "Woody and Nord: A Football Friendship", unapologetically quotes Nietzsche.

His co-author, Andy Woodman, who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in South London, is altogether less likely to drop the name of a German philosopher, apart perhaps from crying "Kant" as an opposing forward dummies him and passes into an empty net.

Woodman is the Oxford United goalkeeper. And the improbability of his close friendship with Southgate - the one an England international almost earning in a week what the other, a Third Division journeyman, does in a year; the one a quiet, thoughtful, genteel sort of chap, the other a self-proclaimed loudmouth - is what spawned the book.

Even without those people looking for Tom Paulin, the panelled room in the Oxford Union is packed. Southgate and Woodman make a highly engaging double-act, talking candidly about a friendship that began when they were both £27.50-a-week apprentices at Crystal Palace and gathered strength on the night Southgate, after too many Tequila Slammers, vomited over the chairman, Ron Noades. There are quite a few people in football who would have relished the chance to throw up over Ron Noades down the years; ironically, Southgate is not one of them.

His nickname, Nord, incidentally, was coined at Palace by Wally Downes, one of the coaches, who reckoned he sounded like the broadcaster Denis Norden. Which brings us to the occasion, still unavoidable in any discussion with or about Southgate, when it was definitely not all right on the night.

After he and Woodman have talked for 45 minutes or so about the book, they take questions from the audience. Inevitably, the subject of the missed penalty in Euro '96 comes up. Woodman is asked whether he, like the German goalkeeper Andreas Köpke, would have saved it. "I don't think I've got near a penalty in years," he says. Actually, that's not true; he saved one for Northampton against Grimsby in the 1998 Third Division play-off final, at the end where Southgate had missed. "But Gareth's," he adds, "was a rubbish penalty."

There is laughter, but Woodman - who was in the crowd for that semi-final against Germany, sitting alongside Southgate's wife-to-be Alison - then talks solemnly about how desperately he wanted to be on the pitch so that he could hug his mate. We are all duly moved. "It was terrible," he says, and looks Southgate in the eye. "We all wanted to go through, and you've cost us."

If Woodman's positioning between the posts were as good as his comic timing, he would rarely have to dive. But he is being disingenuous. One of the most engrossing passages of the book deals with his response to Southgate's penalty miss. For Woodman, it was like watching a public execution. "Everything just went dead," he writes. "People started crying around us. I hugged Alison, who was in tears. Ali, who was never interested in football. Then people started patting her and me on the back. They were really kind; Teddy Sheringham's parents, Gary Neville's dad. We were treated like the next of kin."

Later, in the players' bar, Woodman got his hug. " 'Ah crap penalty, Woody, crap penalty,' he whispered in my ear. 'I don't think it was that good, mate,' I agreed, and we laughed a little. Then I said: 'Listen, you were brave enough to take it, that's the biggest thing, that's what you'll be remembered for.' Sometimes in life you've got to tell a little lie."

Southgate, happily, has been fully redeemed since then, by a string of fine performances both for club and country. He tells the Oxford Union audience that Rio Ferdinand's ban has enhanced his chances of making the squad for Euro 2004, although in the opinion of most football pundits he would have been picked anyway. He is having a good season and played a blinder in the Carling Cup final, becoming the first Middlesbrough captain in 128 years to lift a major trophy.

Woodman, by stark contrast, is out of contract this summer and wondering what the future holds. In five years at his beloved Palace he never once played for the first team; indeed in a cursory flick through the English League Players section of the Sky Sports Football Yearbook, I don't find anyone who registers so many consecutive noughts in the first-team appearances column. Since then, however, he has played for Exeter City, Northampton Town, Brentford, Southend United, Colchester United, and now Oxford. Someone asks him what he thinks of the money earnt by players in the Premiership.

"I think it's marvellous," he says. Everybody laughs. Woodman currently earns £40,000 a year. "No, seriously," he says. "Good luck to them. They're putting a lot of bums on seats every week. I'm not putting as many bums on seats."

Doubtless it is partly because their relationship pre-dates Southgate's millionaire status that they have remained such close friends, talking on the phone, they tell us, practically every day. The disparity of means is apparently not a problem. When they and their respective families go on holiday together, Southgate picks up the bigger expenses but they eat at inexpensive restaurants and split the cost equally. This summer, the holiday they were planning may be kiboshed for the best of reasons. Will Woodman go to watch Euro 2004 if Southgate makes the squad? "You bet your life," he says. "I'll be on the phone for tickets straight away."

The three of us have now withdrawn to another panelled room, while the audience file away happily, most of them with signed copies of the book and a treat in store; it really is an excellent read.

Here is Woodman's hugely moving account of the day his mother was buried. She was 44 when she died, of cervical cancer. He was 17, and following the funeral decided to go to afternoon training with the other youngsters at Palace, unable to cope with the fact that back at his house people were eating sandwiches and laughing.

"I could sense everyone wondering why I'd come in. The only person I can remember is Gareth. He was washing a pair of boots in the cold sink at the back of the changing-room. We were just getting to know each other at the time. He looked at me in amazement. Can't remember what he said, but I remember the way he looked at me. There was concern on his face. Somehow or other I knew from how he reacted towards me that we would get to know each other better."

Might their long friendship, I ask, lead to their working together in future? After all, Southgate has declared his intention to go into management. Do they think about being back on the same payroll?

"No," says Southgate.

"All the time," says Woodman.

Southgate laughs. "A lot of people in football appoint people just because they're friends," he says. "For me they would have to be the best available, and I think Andy knows that. But if that sets him the challenge of going out and becoming the best goalkeeping coach, then..."

"I've already got the first part of the Uefa coaching badge," says Woodman. "I don't want him ever to feel that he has to give me a job. I want to achieve my goals on my own."

Have they given each other career advice?

"I remember us being away on holiday in Portugal together," Southgate says, "and both spending half of it on the phone. You were moving to Brentford, I was moving from Villa."

"And I remember having an argument at Northampton with [the manager] Ian Atkins because he'd left me out," says Woodman. "It was the wrong thing to do. I spoke to Gareth over the weekend and went back in on the Monday with my tail between my legs."

"The thing is," says Southgate, "we are able to tell each other straight. Other people at the club often just tell you what you want to hear. Andy had a clear view of my problems when my relationship was deteriorating with John Gregory [at Aston Villa]."

"People don't understand the mental stress in football," adds Woodman.

"No, even at our age when your head hits the pillow, you're dwelling on the cross you missed, or the penalty you gave away," says Southgate. "And there are not many jobs where everywhere you go people want to speak to you about your job. It's a passion for us as well as a job, but it's a passion for everyone else, too."

Might he drop down a few divisions when the top level is beyond him? According to a po-faced Woodman, the Oxford chairman is willing to offer Southgate terms of £30 a week.

"No, I've looked at the players who've done that, and seen them lose a bit of their reputation. Peter Beardsley was a magnificent player, but he ended up at Hartlepool and got hammered just because the other players were on a different wavelength."

"Yeah, I played against Beardsley," says Woodman. "The pitch was probably the worst he ever played on. My advice to Gareth would be: 'Don't do it'. Washing your own kit, making your own packed lunch every day before you go training... we went to train at Middlesbrough before a game at Darlington, and we felt like we'd won the World Cup, being treated like proper professional footballers for a day."

"I would have loved to see Andy in the Premier League, to experience what I have," says Southgate. "But he's played in a couple of play-off finals at Wembley, and the way Oxford are going he could still play at Cardiff this year. I've had as much pleasure from watching his finals as I have from playing in finals myself."

A big laugh. "Well maybe not quite, let's not kid ourselves. But watching Northampton in that play-off final, people said to me: 'Why are you here?' And I said: 'I'm mates with Woody'. It was as simple as that. I was very proud."

"Yeah, and I'm out of contract soon, I've played 500 League games, I'd be great for someone's bench, as a back-up keeper somewhere," says Woodman. "Look at that guy at Chelsea, the fourth-choice keeper playing in the Champions' League. You never know." He bends over my tape-recorder. "And I've saved a penalty at Wembley."

His best friend, who missed a penalty at Wembley, adds his endorsement. "People are loath to take a chance on young goalkeepers. They make mistakes and their confidence suffers. It's a position that calls for experience."

It is time for the big ex-military policeman to drive Southgate back to Harrogate. There is time for one more question. What has each of them learnt from the other?

"Trust," says Woodman.

"Kalooki," says Southgate, nicking the last laugh, against all the odds.

The Oxford Literary Festival continues until tomorrow (details on 01865 514149). Woody and Nord: A Football Friendship is published by Michael Joseph, priced £17.99. Kalooki is a card game.

Gareth Southgate life and times

1970 Born 3 September in Watford, England.

1989 Begins career at Crystal Park as a midfielder.

1995 Transfers to Villa Park for £2.5m where manager Brian Little changes his position to defender. Makes his home debut against Manchester United in a 3-1 win.

1996 Helps Aston Villa to victory in the Coca-Cola League Cup at Wembley. Also represents England on the Euro 96 team. They lose in the semi-final on sudden death penalties to rival Germany at Wembley.

2001 Moves to Middlesbrough for a fee of £6.5m. Receives the Player of the Year award in his first season and soon becomes captain.

2002 Reaches the 50-cap mark in September against Portugal. Selected as a member of the 2002 World Cup team which represented England in the finals for the 11th time.

2003-2004 As captain, leads Middlesbrough to the Carling Cup Final in Cardiff where the club wins its first major trophy at Cardiff in its 129-year history. Named spokesman and Ambassador for the Football Foundation, the UK's largest sports charity. Currently in contention for the suspended Rio Ferdinand's position in the Euro 2004 squad.