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The name Jonathan Woodgate evokes special memories for the majority of football fans. His everlasting battles with numerous injury problems are one and, perhaps more notable, was his spectacular if unsuccessful spell at Real Madrid. Any player who moves to one of the biggest football clubs in the world does not appear for over a year and then conspires to score an own goal and get sent off on his eventual debut is likely to be remembered for that. But in doing so, much of his quality is ignored and, if not for injuries, he could have become an important central defender for his country as well as his club.
Even prior to his move to the Spanish capital, it was clear he was a top class central defender. In Newcastle’s UEFA Cup semi-final tie with Marseille in 2004, it was Woodgate who completely nullified the threat of future Premier League great Didier Drogba, securing a 0-0 draw. With Woodgate injured and unavailable for the return leg, Drogba scored twice to send Marseille through to the final. It was perhaps this performance that convinced Madrid to gamble on his qualities over his injuries. It did not work out.
Having struggled for form and fitness at the Santiago Bernabeu, he returned to his hometown club Middlesbrough. His spell back in the North-East was a success, but another injury saw him lose his place to David Wheater and paved the way for his move to Tottenham Hotspur. It was in North London that Woodgate truly showed his abilities.
During his first season at the club, Tottenham reached their first major final since 1999, contesting the 2008 League Cup Final against Chelsea. Woodgate was the star of the match, once again keeping Drogba quiet for the majority of the game and heading in what proved to be the winner to hand Spurs their first success in nearly a decade. The central defence for Tottenham that match was a true what if moment, with Woodgate and fellow injury-prone defender Ledley King showing their potential partnership, for both club and country, if not for disastrous injury records.
His international record suffered greatly as a result of his continued injuries, only gaining eight caps, a travesty for a player of his quality. His early career for England was halted due to the ongoing investigation into his involvement in an attack in a nightclub in 2000, but as his career progressed, the quality of English central defenders halted his return. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Jamie Carragher were all key members of England’s squad and Woodgate’s battle with injuries prevented him from truly making his mark for his country.
A player of immense quality, Woodgate was one of many to sit and watch as injuries curbed their talent. Take away the injury problems and who knows how good Woodgate’s career may have ultimately been. In spite of this, he demonstrated his talent at every club he played for and his step into coaching can only be a benefit for those under his tutelage. With the growth of sports science in recent years, maybe Woodgate could have still made the most of his abilities had he been starting his career now. Instead, he will remain one who got away, for both club and country.