Woodgate eager to regain status as top-class defender

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The Independent Football

Jonathan Woodgate is confident he will only get better at Middlesbrough as he attempts to prove himself all over again. The 26-year-old opted to join his home-town club on loan for a season to show new Real Madrid coach, Fabio Capello, that his injury problems are behind him and that he can play a major role at the Bernabeu Stadium.

At the same time the new Boro manager, Gareth Southgate, will hope to persuade Woodgate his future lies in the Premiership rather than La Liga as the club look to exercise their option to buy the player outright next summer.

Much will depend on the former Leeds and Newcastle defender's fitness but - if his debut for Boro is anything to go by - he will be in demand in May. Woodgate was a tower of strength as his side claimed a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Arsenal on Saturday, with his former employers at St James' Park looking on enviously with their defensive problems refusing to go away.

He played down his own contribution, preferring instead to concentrate of the task of re-establishing himself as one of the country's most cultured defenders.

Woodgate said: "I am paid to play football and I want to play football as much as I can. Obviously, in the last two years, I have not been able to do that, but hopefully this year I can progress and keep on learning from the manager, who has been a great centre-half himself."

Woodgate decided to return to England after being told he could spend the season on loan. He had options - he could have stayed in Spain and had several suitors in the Premiership.

But with Newcastle wary of the injury problems which blighted his short stay on Tyneside, he decided to fulfil a dream and join the club he supported as a boy.

It was a decision which is already paying dividends. Woodgate said: "There is a great team spirit here. I look forward to going to training every day because for one, the training is fantastic with the manager and the coaching staff and the players. They are mainly English lads, but all the foreign lads fit in just as well."

Southgate, who played with his loan signing for England when the younger man was still a teenager, said: "He has matured enormously since then. He feels this is an opportunity for him to show people what he can do, and he is putting in an incredible amount of work before and after training to make sure his body is up to it."

Boro's draw at the Emirates Stadium was an excellent response to their 4-0 home drubbing by Portsmouth, in itself an unexpected reverse following a 2-1 victory over Chelsea at the Riverside.

Woodgate is aware of the inconsistency which has hindered the Teessiders in recent years, and is determined to help stamp that out. He told the club's website: "We have to go into the next game looking to get three points at Bolton. We have got to try to win as many matches as we can.

"We have shown we can play against the best teams like we did against Chelsea and against Arsenal. We've got to be more consistent. We have got to beat teams, the likes of Portsmouth and Blackburn, teams who are nearly the same as us.

"We have got to beat those teams because we know we can raise our game against the big teams. That is where we have got to concentrate and be mentally stronger."