Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #34: Jonathan 'Jewel In The Crown' Woodgate

It started as an idea, a labour of love, and morphed into a book that stole my life for a long time. Here's to Woody, the man who could've been king...
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It started as an idea, a labour of love, and morphed into a book that stole my life for a long time. Here's to Woody, the man who could've been king...

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Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #34: Jonathan 'Jewel In The Crown' Woodgate...

The ‘Jewel in the Crown’: That’s how he became known, yes, but sadly when it was too late. Of the crop of youngsters that brought excitement and natural vigour to the Leeds team in the late nineties, Woodgate was quietly hailed as the most promising and accordingly was cradled lovingly. Whilst Smith was brash and Leeds-born and Kewell was clearly outstanding, Woodgate held a loftier position in the Leeds fans’ affections for his honest approach to the game and the immediate dominance he stamped on the side, as an 18-year old defender that simply oozed class.

Was he as good as everyone says? Undoubtedly yes. It was no surprise to see him lining up for Real Madrid in later years; he belonged at that standard. You could see straight away that the art of defending came naturally to him; the positional awareness, the organisational skills, the ability to prevail over the most powerful and dangerous strikers in the English game. It was all taken comfortably within his stride. Woodgate’s main quality, however, was that much sought-after commodity of pace. He had a short, perfunctory stride but his speed and anticipation would combine to see off danger before it proved costly. In addition to this, Woodgate was comfortable on the ball and used it well, you sensed he could have done a decent job in midfield, because he was unhurried in possession of the ball and was bright and alert, not something, lamentably, he was known for off the pitch.

David Batty on Jonathan Woodgate “You can never concentrate fully on the game, you look around to give him a rollicking and he’s there laughing at you. So what do you do?”

He was at Leeds a long time: He nearly joined his native Middlesbrough, but was at Leeds as a schoolboy from 13 years of age, eventually signing as a professional in May 1997, days before the FA Youth Cup triumph. George Graham regularly spoke of the crop of youngsters emerging and Woodgate was liberally referenced as a name we would soon hear more of, but Graham held a reluctance to take the plunge. It was O’Leary who finally took the initiative and immediately upon being given the job handed Woodgate, and others, their debuts. “When George was manager here” said O’Leary “I would be saying, 'Get Batty, he should have never left here'. I was also saying, 'Woodgate is ready, blood Woodgate'. But George was his own man.” Finally, against Nottingham Forest in October 1998 it was Woody’s turn to shine.

An instant success: You could see straight away what people had been talking about. Woody had an elegant calm about his game, the sort of organised assurance that you want in a centre half, and he was only 18. Sometimes you are reticent about youngsters that have perhaps been talked up too much, but with Woodgate it was clear he was undeniably the real deal. During the 1999/00 season, like his colleagues, Woody was on top of his game, he was shackling the likes of Shearer, Fowler and Cole and Leeds were cutting swathes through the Division.

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But it all came crashing down: Leeds had long disapproved of Woodgate commuting from his home town of Middlesbrough, and were aware of the company he kept and his immature and easily-lead nature; in stark contrast to his focussed responsibility on the pitch. The incident in January 2000 and the two court cases between February 2001 and December 2001 would affect Leeds United immeasurably, but in a personal sense would irreversibly change Woodgate’s psyche. Whilst Lee Bowyer would thrive in the challenging circumstances, football was way off the agenda for Woodgate. Prior to the trial he was used irregularly by O’Leary as his form understandably dipped, and during the trials Woodgate retreated from the public eye, with the club credulously citing an ankle injury as the reason for his first team absence. Whilst his team mates rampaged through a joyous Champions League campaign Woodgate would appear ashen-faced and withdrawn at court; his trademark daft, cheeriness replaced by hollow, sleep-deprived eyes. He would eventually be found guilty only of affray and charged with 100 hours’ community service.

Woodgate and Ferdinand should have been the future: No club in England, and possibly even Europe, could boast such a promising defensive partnership. They were truly the dream ticket, the start of a dynasty, but in reality they played only a handful of games together. Woodgate lined up just five times in the Champions League and between January 2001 and Boxing Day of the following 2001/02 season would only make three brief substitute appearances. By the time Woodgate was psychologically right to regain his form, the rot had set in and Ferdinand had been sold.

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‘Black Friday’ was looming: Injuries started to impact on Woodgate, but with Leeds’ financial plight claiming a series of victims it seemed unthinkable that they would cash in on their prize asset. Chairman Ridsdale had assured the new manager Terry Venables that no more sales were necessary, but amid gathering gloom, one Friday in January 2003, Leeds accepted a bid of £9million from Newcastle. Quite apart from being hugely undervalued, the very fact that Leeds had even considered selling Woodgate had tipped the balance. Sincerely now, Leeds fans knew the club’s plight was more wretched than they had dared imagine. On the back of Woodgate’s sale, Ridsdale would eventually resign.

The legacy?  Woodgate’s emergence, actions and consequent sale can be viewed as key developments within an astonishing chapter of the Leeds United story. History tells us that an extraordinary series of chronic injuries have hampered Woodgate’s future career at other clubs, and meant he has never realized his initial promise. Despite making his England debut at age 19 in 1999, Woodgate would gain only eight full England caps, a meagre return for a defender who had the world at his feet.

What if he had never signed for Leeds? Woody showcased ability like no other player during that time and though we enjoyed it whilst it lasted, we can look back now only with regret at potential unfulfilled.With him; the possibilities were endless, without him; we know what happened.

In a nutshell: What might have been.

Stats

Date of birth: 22/01/80

Birthplace: Middlesbrough

Signed from: Academy

Leeds United Debut: Nottingham Forest (A) 17/10/98

Left Leeds for: Newcastle United

Leeds United appearances and goals

Season Apps Goals

1998-99 33 2

1999-00 47 (2) 1

2000-01 21 1

2001-02 13 (2) 0

2002-03 24 0

TOTAL 138 (4) 4

*Substitute appearances in brackets

International Career

England Caps 8

England Goals 0

Strange but true

Jonathan Woodgate was named in David O’Leary’s first ever team as caretaker manager at home to Leicester on October 3rd 1998. He didn’t come on but did make his debut away at Nottingham Forest, two weeks later.

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