New question mark over Woodgate's future

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The Independent Football

"One boozy night has brought this club down," David O'Leary complained recently when asked why Leeds United had slipped from the Premiership summit towards the dreaded Intertoto Cup. If Leeds hoped that Jonathan Woodgate's part in that fateful evening 16 months ago was now behind him, the events of Tuesday night shattered their illusions.

The exact circumstances in which Woodgate sustained a broken jaw during what is described as "an attack" in his home town of Middlesbrough are unclear. However, the very fact that the 22-year-old England defender continues to attract headlines for his non-playing activities, just when it seemed that his career with Leeds was back on track and many critics were lobbying for his inclusion in England's World Cup squad, will be a source of anguish and concern to the club who stood by him following his conviction for affray during the assault of an Asian student early last year.

The Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, last night confined himself to a stark statement to the effect that Woodgate would miss the rest of the season after having surgery on his jaw, adding that the player and his family did not wish to comment any further.

Ridsdale is steeped in the need to exercise caution when it comes to commenting on such matters – the trial and re-trial of Woodgate and Lee Bowyer provided a painful lesson in such matters – yet there can be little doubt that the club will come under strong pressure, both from its own, image-conscious plc and from the media, to wash their hands of Woodgate should it be proved that he was anything less than the innocent victim of an assault.

Leeds, indeed, made it clear after the end of his trial last December that Woodgate was effectively on his "last chance" with the club where he graduated from the FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1997 to his sole full England cap against Bulgaria two years later. Having fined him eight weeks' wages for his part in the assault on Sarfraz Najeib – a club punishment as distinct from the 100 hours' community service to which he was sentenced at Hull Crown Court – they also warned him that he must move to within the Leeds city boundaries and away from his friends in the Teesside area.

Until last week, when Woodgate was fined £500 for a speeding offence, his rehabilitation seemed to be progressing smoothly. After hardly playing last season, when he cut a sorry, sickly looking figure compared with the ebullient Bowyer as Leeds' run to the European Cup semi-finals coincided with their original trial, Woodgate returned to the side at Bolton in late December More recently, in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand, his form had been so impressive that he was expected to be recalled by England for the friendly against Italy at Elland Road on 27 March.

Sven Goran Eriksson dashed his hopes, on the "moral" grounds that so-called football hooligans convicted of offences were prevented from travelling, so it would set the wrong example to allow a similarly convicted player to do so. The England coach, not to mention the Football Association's chief executive, Adam Crozier, will take no satisfaction from the news of Woodgate's latest fracas, but they are likely to feel vindicated in their decision.

As for Leeds, where every step back towards normality seems to be followed by fresh damage to their reputation (the racist chanting by a section of their followers at Leicester last month being another instance), they will be urgently seeking to establish the facts of Tuesday's attack before deciding what action, if any, to take against Woodgate. They will want to know whether the assault was unprovoked, and if so, why the Cleveland police said that the incident had not been reported to them.

O'Leary would be loath to lose such an outstanding young player, whose transfer value would normally be at least £10m. But, having been heavily criticised for taking Woodgate back into the fold after his conviction for affray, he might now feel so badly let down that he has no alternative other than to move the player on.

It remains to be seen whether there would be a rush of buyers if it transpired that there had been another "boozy night".

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