Woodgate: 'I'm a nice lad who made a mistake and recovered from it'

Woodgate is home to claim back his England place - and exorcise his demons
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It is true to say that Jonathan Woodgate has put his troubled past behind him. Tattooed across his back are the following words of wisdom from Vince Lombardi, the legendary American Football coach: "The darkest moments of our lives are not to be buried and forgotten. Rather, they are a memory to be called upon for inspiration, to remind us of the unrelenting human spirit and our capacity to overcome the intolerable."

Woodgate was not long in being reminded of the darkest moments of his young life when he was unveiled as a new signing for Middlesbrough, on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, at the club's Hurworth training complex on Thursday afternoon. "People are always going to bring it up," he said, when the subject of his protracted trial for assault was inevitably mentioned. "I know they are not going to forget the incident."

In swapping Madrid for Middlesbrough, Woodgate has chosen to give himself a constant reminder of the pitfalls that led to his appearance in the dock at Hull Crown Court in 2001. It was in Leeds city centre that Sarfraz Najeib was attacked in January 2000, but it was in the watering holes of Middlesbrough that Woodgate and his co-defendants, Paul Clifford and Neale Caveney, old schoolfriends from the Nunthorpe suburb of the Teesside town, became immersed in an aggres-sive, drink-fuelled culture.

Woodgate played for Leeds at the time but lived in Middlesbrough. He was cleared of committing grievous bodily harm but found guilty of affray. Perhaps moving back to Middlesbrough will give him the chance fully to exorcise the dark moments.

"It was a long time ago," he said. "I'm not a bad lad. If you ask people, they'll tell you I'm a nice lad who made a mistake and has recovered from it. I've matured a lot since I was 18 or 19. You have to learn lessons, and I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life back then.

"When you're young, you're a bit stupid and a bit easily led. Everyone makes mistakes when they're that age. I've changed as a person since then. When I was in Spain I was on my own a lot and I did a lot of thinking. It did me good. It made me a lot stronger."

Just how strong will become clear as the Middlesbrough boy makes his way as a Middlesbrough player, starting at the Emirates Stadium next Saturday. After two injury-ravaged years in Madrid, and just 14 appearances, Woodgate will be looking to rebuild his career for a second time.

A Premiership regular with Leeds at 18 and an England international at 19 (making his debut alongside Gareth Southgate against Bulgaria), there were fears during his trial that he might not play again. By the spring of 2004, though, he was not just playing but being hailed as something close to a finished article of a central defender as he achieved that supposed mission impossible in English football: shoring up Newcastle United's legendarily leaky defence.

Shay Given likened him to Franz Beckenbauer ("He just seems to coast through games") and Sir Bobby Robson portrayed him as a latter-day Bobby Moore. "He reads the game just like Moore did when he was 29, 30, but this boy is only 24," Sir Bobby gushed. "He's an absolute colossus."

That was before Woodgate was felled by a quadriceps injury against Chelsea at St James' Park. He has not got back into his stride since that April day in 2004. Still, thanks to twice-daily strengthening work on his transverse abdominals, he is fit and raring to go again in the Premiership - with the hometown team he rejected 15 years ago.

Woodgate was offered a place at Middlesbrough's Centre of Excellence at the age of 11 but chose to stay with Marton Boys' Club and look for a break elsewhere. Two years later, after an unsuccessful trial at Old Trafford, he signed forms for Leeds.

He was, however, raised as a Boro fan. The first Middlesbrough game he attended was the club's first after liquidation in 1986, moved up the A19 to Hartlepool because Ayresome Park was still padlocked. His father, Alan, is a season-ticket holder at the Riverside.

"I always had ambitions to play for Middlesbrough," Woodgate maintained. "It's my hometown club. I could have stayed in Spain or moved to different clubs in England, but I wanted to be in the North-east of England. I wanted to be home in the surroundings that I know."

There is an option for a four-year stay in those surroundings at the end of his loan period, but Woodgate openly admits to a hankering for a return to the Bernabeu.

"Real Madrid are the biggest club in the world and anyone who has got ambition wants to play for them," he said. "I've got unfinished business there."