His well documented injury problems have blighted that career, a double whammy of professional disappointment alongside personal irresponsibility; the latter being his involvement in an alleged racially motive attack on a student in Leeds in 2000. Woodgate was ultimately found ‘only’ guilty of affray, escaping a custodial sentence by being cleared on the more serious charge of grievous bodily harm.
Woodgate was unquestionably foolish to have ever been caught up in the incident in the first place, foolish and irresponsible, with questions of his character and attitude as an individual, as well as a footballer bound to haunt him for the rest of his life. What may haunt him more on a personal level is the way he had the footballing world at his talented feet, feet that should have propelled him into a career that could have given him as much as he had ever wanted from the game. For, as questionable as his character has become, what is unquestionable is the quality footballer, a potentially world class one, that was forever lost in a few uncontrolled moments of drink induced rage on that January night.
He approaches the 2011/12 season without a club, seemingly cursed by injury, and, at 31, already approaching the twilight of his career. In his short but memorable pomp at Leeds, Woodgate was imperious, a stand-out defender, and, in the minds of many, a potentially better player and all round defender than his £18 Million Leeds team mate, Rio Ferdinand. Had his career developed as Ferdinand’s has done, it might have been Woodgate that now had 70 odd caps for England with, quite possibly, Premier League and even Champions League honours to his name. His time at Real Madrid might have been glorious rather than an embarrassment, and he might have seen his peak years in the English game clad in the red shirt of an Arsenal, Liverpool, or even Manchester United, rather than Middlesbrough.
As things now stand, Woodgate did not need his injuries to make him appear untouchable, the court case and associated publicity did that for him. Even if he had have been injury free in the decade that followed, it is unlikely that any of those clubs would have then seen fit to sign him. Instead, he has carved out a partial career, with Newcastle and Middlesbrough, that surreal spell at the Bernabeu coming in between those stints. Even at Tottenham, he has barely managed fifty league appearances in three and a half years, and how frustrating for Tottenham fans to not see the player he could have been.
In one particular Leeds appearance, Woodgate was majestic. The stage was fitting, the opponents Lazio, the occasion a Champions League match in December 2000. It was certainly the best match Woodgate ever played for Leeds, and, quite probably, the greatest performance of his career. On that chilly Rome night, Woodgate displayed all the qualities of a potentially world class defender, showing awareness, speed of thought, impeccable touch in both pass and tackle, and an ability to play the ball from defence rather than take the easy option of route one.
His performance earnt him plaudits from observers throughout Europe, amongst them pending England Manager Sven Goran-Eriksson, then in charge of Lazio. There is little doubt that Eriksson, particularly after that performance would have seen Woodgate as an automatic pick for his future England XI’s, the irony of it all being that Woodgate had best demonstrated his abilities as an international defender for England by showing that he was anything but English in his style of play-indeed, the manner and composure he had shown throughout the game indicated that he would not have looked out of place in either the Lazio side, or the Italian national team.
Miracles can happen, but it is probable that Jonathan Woodgate’s playing career peaked on that night in Rome, reaching heights that he has never since equalled, heights that could have been the norm for him. Sympathy towards any player whose career is blighted by injury is easy; it is far more difficult to feel much for those who may have contributed an element of self destruction to their story. Jonathan Woodgate should have been a great player. I suspect one of those who realises it the most is Woodgate himself-that may yet be punishment enough for that night when it all started to go so very wrong for him.
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