Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson made yet another bold managerial decision when he handed the reins to former captain Jonathan Woodgate this summer. Gibson is never scared to take a punt on a first-time manager and he is responsible for launching the careers of several big names. He handed Gareth Southgate, Steve McLaren and Bryan Robson their first managerial roles, and Woodgate will now bid to follow in their footsteps by enjoying success on Teesside.
He grew up Nunthorpe and he supported the club throughout his childhood, while rising through the ranks at amateur sides Nunthorpe FC and Marton Athletic. He joined Boro’s youth academy aged 13 and watched on as the senior team secured promotion to the Premier League in 1995. Those were the heady days of Robson’s reign, when they had Juninho, Nicky Barmby and Branco in their ranks and they delighted crowds at the shiny new Riverside Stadium.
Superstar Fabrizio Ravanelli joined the following season and anything seemed possible for Middlesbrough, but Woodgate’s family fell out with the club over disagreements about his future, and he moved to Leeds aged 16. That was where he secured his big break. After leading them to the FA Youth Cup in 1997, he was fast-tracked into the first-team set-up, where he competed with Rio Ferdinand and Lucas Radebe for a starting berth.
Woodgate developed into one of England’s finest defenders during his time at Elland Road. It was also a glorious time for Leeds United fans to be alive, as they were regularly challenging for the title, playing Champions League football and dazzling with their all-round flair and attacking intent. The club splashed serious amounts of cash and they went all the way to the Champions League semi-finals in 2001. Woodgate, Ferdinand, Radebe, Ian Harte and Danny Mills formed a strong defensive spine, while Alan Smith, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka were dangerous going forwards.
Woodgate’s time at Leeds was not without controversy – he was convicted of affray following an incident that saw an Asian student hospitalised with severe injuries – but on the pitch he grew in stature with every passing season. Yet Leeds’ ambitious project then imploded in spectacular fashion. The club had overspent on big names and it was plunged into serious debt, forcing a fire sale that saw Woodgate move to Newcastle.
He spent just six months at St James’s Park before his performances caught the eye of Real Madrid, who snapped him up for €18 million in 2004. It was a dream move, but it soon turned into a nightmare for Woodgate as he suffered a serious injury in his final game for the Magpies, and he missed the entire 2004-05 season. By the time he finally made his debut, a youngster by the name of Sergio Ramos has established himself as an exciting talent and Woodgate’s opportunities were limited. He scored an own goal and was shown a red card in a disastrous debut, and that just about summed up his time in Madrid. Woodgate ended up making just nine league appearances during a two-year spell at the Bernabeu and he returned to Middlesbrough to rebuild his career.
Yet he showed his quality once again at Boro, where he was voted the team’s player of the season in 2006-07. A strong two-year spell on Teesside earned him a £7 million move to Tottenham, where he won the league cup in 2008. Injuries once more blighted his career and he made just a handful of appearances between 2009 and 2011, before playing for Stoke in 2011-12 and then spending the final four years of his playing career with Boro in the Championship.
He made 112 appearances in total for his hometown club and joined the coaching team in 2017. He has served under Steve Agnew, the unfortunate Garry Monk and Tony Pulis during ill-fated attempts to secure promotion back to the bright lights of the Premier League, and now Gibson has catapulted him into the hot seat.
Similar punts have paid off in the past for the chairman, as McLaren and Southgate enjoyed success at the Riverside before they both went on to manage England. Pulis seemed like a sensible choice as manager, as he should have been able to drag the club back up to the top flight by grinding out victories built on pragmatism, solidity and hard work. Yet they never quite made it, and now Woodgate has pledged to foster a much more exciting, attacking style as he bids to lead the club to the Promised Land once more.
He played under Southgate at Boro and he admires the bold, progressive work that the current Three Lions boss has done with the national team. He will try to capture some of the excitement that permeated the Middlesbrough set up of 1996, the Leeds team of 2001 and the Real Madrid team that also featured Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Raul, Michael Owen and David Beckham. “I want to win games scoring goals,” he said, much to the delight of Boro fans that dismayed at Pulis’ turgid brand of football. “If you look at this league now, you go up by scoring goals. If you don’t, you won’t go up.”
The Championship is a fiercely competitive division, as this sports betting blog is keen to point out, but Woodgate’s comments are refreshing. It is perhaps incongruous for a former defender to speak about playing more exciting, attacking football, but he tempered it by promising that his side will not be gung-ho and that pressing will be crucial to their philosophy.
He has been at the club for five years now, he knows the youth setup well and he will give budding stars a chance to impress in the first team. He will bring gravitas to the role, despite his inexperience, and his forward-thinking philosophy has clearly wowed Gibson. Woodgate made 112 appearances in total for the club and he should enjoy a strong connection with the fans, so he has all the ingredients to succeed. Middlesbrough are among the favourites for promotion and, if he makes a flying start to his managerial career, Woodgate has a great chance of taking them up.