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Woodgate: 'I know how Gareth Bale feels, I had a nightmare at Madrid'

The central-defender spoke to AS in Middlesbrough about his upbringing, his injury nightmare at the Bernabéu, and Gareth Bale, whom he played with at Tottenham.


Jonathan Woodgate is a well-recognised name in the Spanish capital. He joined Real Madrid in the summer of 2004, a bright prospect for the future. But his luck with injuries was rotten. Woodgate did not make a single league appearance in his first season at the Bernabéu. Nobody is better placed to understand Gareth Bale's current predicament than Woodgate, who Marco Ruíz spoke with outside the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough. 

'Gary Pallister was my hero growing up'

We are stood outside the gates to the Riverside Stadium. What does this place mean to you?

This is the old stadium. I used to go with my father and my grandfather and my uncle to watch Middlesbrough.

Did any of them play football?

No, no. My Dad used to think he was a good player. But he wasn't. He said he was quick. But he always encouraged me to go to the games, and always encouraged me to play with my friends in the street. And then play on Sundays with another team. So he was always there, pushing me to go the right way.

What did your parents do?

He was a plumber. And my mother was a secretary, in a big firm.

Did you have a tough upbringing, economically?

There were good years and bad years. My father worked so hard every day, if he had work things were ok, but if he didn't, it was tough.

Did you have a hero when you were a child?

Yes! My idol was Gary Pallister. The Manchester United player. And then he played here [at Middlesbrough].

Why was he your hero?

Because he was a central defender. Tall, good on the ball, good in the air. But he had a presence. He was so calm. He was just a good player. And he moved to Manchester and I followed his career there, and he won the Premier League, on many occasions, and I still see him now in Middlesbrough.

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'Jose Mourinho is a very good psychologist'

There are a lot of foreign coaches here. Is that changing British football?

I'd say there's a lot more structure to teams now, with the foreign coaches coming in. I think they've brought a different style to the Premier League. But English coaches are still good. Foreign coaches have great ideas, and I think it has changed the game. I'm trying to think if English coaches went into Spain, could they change the game there? They wouldn't be able to, would they...

What do you think of Jose Mourinho?

I think he's a very good psychologist. And a very good manager. And being a manager is being a very good psychologist. I think he gets the best out of his players. Like I say, I don't know him, but as a young coach, I look up to him, because of what he's done. He's won Champions Leagues in Portugal, Italy... I think he's a fantastic manager.

Did you see Giorgio Chiellini’s statement that Pep Guardiola’s methods have made defenders worse?

I think the defending has got worse. There are a lot of goals now. Goals everywhere. I think some defenders don't want to defend. England is different to Spain. In England you have to defend, you have to head the ball. Some defenders don't want to head the ball. Defenders have to mark in the box. Some don't want to.

I think the determination of defenders has slowly gone down. When I was playing I loved a clean sheet. So if my team won 1-0, I loved that. Especially away from home. But now I don't know. I think some don't care as long as they win. But I liked to not concede goals.

Which central defenders do you admire now?

I love Ramos! […] He's won everything. World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, Ligas...

That guy who plays for Real Sociedad... Iñigo Martínez. He's a smashing player. Atleti's chap... [José María] Giménez. He doesn't play much, but he's good, [Stefan] Savic. I like Giménez, he's very English. He's tough. And he's fast. And from Athletic, [Aymeric] Laporte.

'It was a nightmare at Real Madrid'

You didn't play much at Real Madrid, because of your injuries, but the fans really loved you. Why do you think they liked you so much?

I really don't know. Maybe because I'm smiling every day. I tried to learn the language as soon as I went there. They maybe saw a fighter in me. Someone who wanted to improve the team. But I went there, and it was like phhh, a nightmare. A nightmare. Signing for the best team in the world, and not being able to play for one year. It's a killer. A killer. And I'd be thinking a lot, "when will I get my chance?". I used to work really hard, every day...

How many hours each day?

In the morning and afternoon with the physios. Every day I had to do 1,000 sit-ups, to get my back strong.

Did you need a psychologist? It must have been difficult.

No, I was my own psychologist. But it was 13 years ago, they didn't have psychologists then. No psychology in 2004.

Where did the problem come from?

The problem was coming from the back, because I had an unstable segment. […] But it wasn't sore in the back. There would be like a nerve pain into the leg and that would go boom.

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Tell me about that debut... [Woodgate scored an own goal and was sent off on his league debut against Athletic Bilbao]

It was great! I loved it. Hadn't played for a year. First game: red card and an own goal. It's no problem. The next game, that was spot-on. And when I came out on the pitch the people applauded.

After Real Madrid you went to Middlesbrough, and in three months you played more than you had in two years at Real Madrid.

Well, I did the full pre-season with Capello, all the running. It was a difficult pre-season. Probably the hardest pre-season I ever did. We went to Austria, we were doing 1,000 metres. Everything. It was really hard. Played some pre-season games. And then towards the start of the season, I think we played Valencia, and I was on the bench. And after that he said, "you can go on loan". I think it was Baldini who said, "Middlesbrough want to take you on loan, do you want to go?" And I asked if I wasn't going to play at Real Madrid. And he said I wasn't going to play there. "Well I need to play", I replied. I had two years. One year I didn't play. The other I played 15 games. So I needed to play. And this was the perfect place for me to come. Being back home and I got back in the England squad. I played against Spain. And I played really well that year.

But I made a big mistake, because I signed in the February that year, when I should have waited and gone back to Madrid. […] Basically I was on loan for one year. And in that year I was with Middlesbrough. But I shouldn't have actually signed at Middlesbrough. I should have gone back to Real Madrid, because I had two years left on my contract. I should have gone back and played… played for the biggest team in the world.

Do you regret leaving?

Yes, exactly. It's a big regret for me, because I was playing well.

How do you remember your time at Real Madrid?

When I played, I played well. I played good games when I played, but I didn't play enough. That's my biggest regret. I always think about it. I was at the biggest team in the world and I couldn't play every game. My potential could have gone from here to... here. But I enjoyed my time there. With [David] Beckham and Michael [Owen].

You learnt Spanish quickly. That's important? Outside Britain, other British players seem to struggle...

It wasn't tough for me.

Why don’t more British players excel overseas?

But how many have there been in the last 15 years. [Steve] McManaman. He played well. Beckham, he played well. Owen, too. Bale. He's played well.

He [Owen] scored 23 goals. He played well. He only had one season. And he had Ronaldo and Raúl in front of him.

I'd encourage more English players to go and play abroad. Why don't they go? I think they get paid more in England. Only Barcelona and Real Madrid can pay more.

'Gareth Bale has done really well in Madrid'

Gareth Bale’s current situation is similar to yours, no?

Bah, Gareth has won how many Champions Leagues? Three! How many Ligas? It's not the same. It's totally different. Bale is one of the best players in the world.

Do you know him personally from Tottenham?

Yes. He's a great guy. I still speak with Gareth. We text each other now and again. Gareth's a good guy. A really good guy. I think he's done really well in Madrid. He's done good.

We were there [at Tottenham] Gareth and I for two years. But I was there when he was 20 years old. When he was left-back and left-wing. He was a beast. Strong. But he had a few problems with little injuries.

He's only played 50% of Real Madrid's matches since he signed…

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But it's not his fault. Maybe look at the training. Maybe look at the different schedules they have to play. It has to be understood that it's difficult for him as well. He doesn't want to be in this situation. He'll get through it. And he'll be back.

Can you empathise with what Bale is going through?

Yes, I know how he feels. It can be a lonely place when you're injured. Because it's just you. You're the one who is injured and everyone else is talking. Blah, blah, blah and you're injured. You don't want to be injured, there's nothing worse. Especially being Gareth, he's in Spain and playing for the best team in the world, there's a lot of pressure.

[Spanish] Is the biggest thing. You have to try and speak Spanish. When I speak to you I make lots of mistakes, but it's not a problem. You're learning Spanish.

But it's tough for him. He's got a bigger profile. He's more famous. People didn't know who Jonathan Woodgate was.

What advice would you give him?

Gareth is his own man. Gareth knows his own body. You just have to take your time. Time. Time. It's time and just staying strong. Always think positive. Always think that there will be a solution. Gareth will be like that. I know Gareth and he's a good guy and he'll be thinking positively.

Coaching the next step... 

Was it difficult to leave football?

What happened was, I had to try and plan ahead. I didn't want to finish and just stay out of football. I wanted to get back into football as quickly as possible, because it's the only thing that I really know. So I got a job offer from Liverpool to be a scout in Spain and Portugal which I did for six months. I loved the job, it was a great experience for me watching different football and watching teams in Spain play, from Under 19 level right to the top. It was great. And then I got an offer from Middlesbrough to be first team coach when Karanka left. Steve Agnew got the job and he wanted me to come with him, to try and save the club from relegation. That didn't pay off. And after that I joined the Under-18s at Middlesbrough, an academy team, which is just perfect for me, so I can learn, because going into the big stuff is difficult. So it's good to learn first, make all the mistakes at this level. And then maybe go up after that.

Is that an option for you in the future, to be a coach? Is that your dream?

It's my ambition in the future. But at the moment I've got a lot to learn. I've got a lot of things to complete, before I even think of that. And at the moment I'm really enjoying what I'm doing with the [Middlesbrough] Under-18s.

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