Johnny’s hero of the week: Boro boy Jonathan Woodgate

Date published: Friday 2nd August 2019 12:55 - Sarah Winterburn

Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero is still only 39 and is a native son of the glorious town of Middlesbrough whose football club – of whom he’s been a fan since he was six – he will be managing for the first time in a competitive game this weekend. Imagine how that feels? A wonderful defender, blessed with pace and vision who was good in the air and on the ground, he had an injury-ravaged career playing for Leeds, Newcastle, Spurs, Stoke and the Boro. Oh and he played for Real Madrid, making one of the most memorable and comically disastrous debuts, scoring an OG and getting sent off. Then in three long years, he played only eight times more as bits of him kept snapping and falling off.

Played eight times for his country, missing out on the 2002 World Cup due to being suspended from international duty by the FA as punishment following a highly unsavoury and decidedly unheroic incident with Lee Bowyer in Leeds which twice went to court. While Bowyer seemed unaffected by the trials and played well throughout, Jonathan looked hollow-eyed and pale, suggesting it was taking far more of a toll on him.

Always carried himself on the pitch with that wonderful shoulders-back sort of authority. He was the sort of player who just looked like he was in charge. When fit, he was a truly elegant defender, largely atypical of English centre-halves at the time, in that he was comfortable on the ball and played it out when he could. In many ways, he was ahead of the curve. He helped Leeds to a European semi-final. Many Newcastle fans will tell you he was their best defender in many a long year. The fact Real Madrid signed him, shows how highly regarded he was outside of these shores. The fact he went to Spain reflected his ambition and a lack of insularity.

Today’s game would’ve suited him perfectly with its reduction in physicality meaning he was less likely to get injured. The development of harrying rather than tackling would also have played to his strong suit as he was an excellent blocker and not quick to go to ground, putting pressure on the opposition player rather than just slamming into him. However, at his best, he was precise and effective tackler, often using a surprising burst of speed to ward off danger.

Favoured that thin cord headband thing, which always gives the wearer a touch of the rock ‘n’ roll, foot up on the stage monitor of life aspect, when the man underneath has longish hair.

When he finally hung up his boots he did a bit of scouting for Liverpool in Spain and Portugal, which does rather sound like a dream job involving lying about in the sun and drinking beer. Returning to Middlesbrough he worked in the youth academy and as an assistant coach for Tony Pulis. When Pulis was finally let go after the human rights crimes of severe and persistent abuse of a football, chairman Steve Gibson handed the job to our man. He’s taken Robbie Keane and Leo Percovich on board to help him out and starts his campaign with the opening game of the season today at 7.45pm away to Luton Town. Oh and he’s married to Stewart Downing’s sister, Natalie too. That’ll be Jonathan Woodgate, then.


What have they done to deserve this then?
The league season in England kicks off on Friday night when Luton play Middlesbrough at 7.45pm. Yes it is back. Thank Christ for that. We were all starting to feel the pain of existence.

I assume Sky pulled it forward because they are desperate to get the party started so a TV audience of literally some people will see the 2019/2020 campaign get underway and for the Middlesbrough manager, it’ll be his debut as manager in a competitive game. Let’s hope he doesn’t score an own goal and get sent off.

Woody has been well-regarded as a coach since his retirement. There’s talk that his man-management skills are very good and that he’s keen on playing a more pressing, attacking game after the team’s long dark winter of the soul playing Pulis ball until everyone lost the will to live. The talk of his appointment is of a fresh, vibrant, younger squad and a change to a more attacking, goal scoring style which will be established at the club from youth level upwards. There was some vaguely cringey executive talk of this being ‘a golden thread’ running through the club. You really shouldn’t say things like that in Middlesbrough, people will give you funny looks. Steve Gibson says: “There’s something about him, he’s different.”

There is an extraordinary warmth of affection in football for a returning ex-player, especially a native son. In an era where everything from owners to players to managers seems distant and corporate and with players living lives behind the tinted windows of financial privilege, many of us feel disenfranchised from that which was once very much ours. So the ex-player or native who is felt to ‘get’ the club becomes an even more important asset. It’s a connection to history and roots in a way that someone from somewhere else doesn’t.

Sadly, it doesn’t always work out and it is obviously no guarantee of success. I’m sure Woody is all too aware of Tony Mowbray’s uneven tenure as Boro boss and Mogga is a living legend to all on Teesside. But it’s a great club to start your career as a manager. The chairman is accessible, has known Woody for many years and will give him time to work things out. He runs the club responsibly, keeps things on an even keel and doesn’t indulge in what some see as financial malpractice, which, if not against the law, are certainly against the spirit of the law, in order to get around Financial Fair Play rules.

He knows that the most important thing is that Middlesbrough FC keeps on keeping on. That it is simply there. And he won’t bet the farm on trying to get back to the Premier League the way many have. With the parlous financial state of the majority of Championship clubs all too evident, Gibson’s sensible approach should be appreciated by everyone. He is a small island of sanity in a sea of madness. Woody can rely on there being no alarms and no surprises in that regard.

His experience with the academy should also see the club develop more of their own first-team players, something the club has often been good at and is the sort of sustainable policy needed at every club in order to stop relying on shopping for success over growing more organically.


Anyone grumpy about it?
There are those who see Gibson as too conservative and lacking ambition for the club. I’m not quite sure what anyone expects MFC to do in the world of football, when to achieve even mid-table status in the top flight now, you need a billionaire owner throwing money at it for years. And to what end? Would a 10th place finish in the top flight satisfy those who think Gibson has no ambition? No it wouldn’t. Ambition is overrated. The only ambition should be to have a good time and that’s what the new manager will be hoping to bring to the party.

Some fans wanted a big management name, for no good reason, but by and large everyone has nothing but goodwill towards Woody. He’ll get good support from the local press, though the relationship between the Gazette and the club is often an unnecessarily bumpy one.

Middlesbrough does have fans that periodically call for Gibson to get that billionaire in to fund the club to new heights, pay big fees and big wages for big name players and managers. This is idiocy. That way lies madness for obvious reasons that shouldn’t even need explaining. Many clubs would wish to be in the place the Boro are financially, as Bolton and Bury and many others teeter on extinction.


What the people say
Obviously, the concerns of Middlesbrough football club are a niche interest in the world of football, but then we rather like being out of the way and unfashionable. But we are, by and large, a supportive collective and so a lot of good wishes came in from Boro fans and from others who had been impressed by him at their club, before inevitably being out for a year with A Massive Knack.

We start with our traditional haiku from 4_4 haiku

Reformed Teessider
Overcoming obstacles
Thus Luton beckons

His Real Madrid debut has got to be amongst the best ever video gold mines for the producers of QoS…

Pleased with how he’s looking to play as well as giving youth a chance. After last season it’s all we can ask, club needs to be better as a whole moving forward. UTB 2-1 win tomorrow

Genuinely hope he does well at Boro. Jonathan Woodgate was, without a doubt, one of the most talented defenders I’ve ever watched in a black and white shirt

Hope this goes well for him, always seemed nice chap

A new Boro, with one of our best central defenders at the helm. His criminally short Boro playing career stopped him being a true great for us. He has the chance to stamp an identity on a team without one. Think we and he will surprise a lot of people this season.

Without doubt until one evening of lunacy was the best defender in the country. Faster than Des Walker, superb tackler, strong, great distribution, he had everything. Wasn’t great to see him deteriorate so quickly, but wish him well in his managerial career.

I had doubts about his appointment based on nothing more than rumours. He’s totally won me over without a ball being kicked. Humble, hard working, down to earth. He’s said all the right things and conducted himself very well. Proper Teesside.

If only he could have stayed fit he could have been one of the very best. Still a great player but tinged with what might have been.

One of the best center half performances I’ve ever seen at The Emirates in 06. Against Thierry Henry and the rest of them. Good luck Jonathan!

Once saw him in a bar in Newcastle. Not as tall as I thought he would be and it was less than three hours after the final whistle of a Boro away match in Bolton.

Good luck to JW. Funnily as a player he did not seem to have the qualities to mark him out as a manager. Lucky to start at his home town club and have a chairman who normally gives his managers time.

His Newcastle spell was something special and injuries aside, I honestly believe he was heading towards a career as England’s 1st choice CB. His name in the starting line-up transformed a side known for defence fragility into what I hoped would become title contenders. His performances were brilliant and he fully deserved the Real Madrid move. I think Bobby’ s words at the time were that he couldn’t deny a player of his ability the chance to play in that Real side. I was 16 and heartbroken and still think that NUFC never recovered from the sale.

Injury is a tragedy in any career, but jeeeez it cut a swathe through a mountain of talent there. Always seemed to exhibit that key trait of the accomplished centre-back, Brad, i.e. the ball always seemed to be in front of him. One of the few to pop Didier Drogba in his pocket.

That UEFA Cup semi at SJP in 04 v Marseille remains the greatest CB performance I’ve ever seen. Injured in the second leg and Drogba gets two, we might well have made the final if Woodgate was fit. “If Woodgate was fit” became a regular regret for Sir Bobby’s team.


What does the future hold?
Even though he’s a rookie and very much in the ‘young English manager’ category, his target will be to get into the play-offs, the club having just missed out last season. But just some decent, enjoyable football would be plenty enough for many. At only 39 he’s got a lot of years ahead of him to learn his craft. In some ways it’d be surprising if he was especially good from the get-go. He’s come in at a high level largely because of his connections to the club and the area, so I’d hope that he’ll be cut a lot of slack from the fans. It’s always exciting to see someone like Woodgate get a chance at his home town club, especially after the previous appointment being a predictable pluck off the usual suspects merry-go-round.

While promotion, even for just a season, would be financially welcome, I am not alone in fearing the sheer pointlessness and slow drip of misery of being in the top flight for a club like Boro and are happy to be in the second tier in perpetuity. It’s the best league, the most competitive and unpredictable. A league that many fans tell me they love so much, if it were not for financial considerations, they’d be happy to never be promoted out of.

Down here, there is often a good route from youth academy to first team because there isn’t always the money to try and buy your way to success and even when there is, pleasingly, it often fails. Indeed, Boro’s spend last summer was proof that big spenders often flop. It is far less driven by the amount you lash out and you never know at the start of any season who will win the title. That is how all football should be.

So a play-off place followed by glorious failure in the play-off final would please many of us massively. Boro is a good place to learn your trade and if you turn out to be really good at the job (and even if you’re not) you can still end up as England manager!

Good luck, son.


John Nicholson

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