Is this the best ever central defender to play for Newcastle United
The next player to join my team of greatest Newcastle United players in the Premier League era is one who’s time with us was, unfortunately, all too brief.
That man was Jonathan Woodgate, who signed for the club in January 2003 for an initial fee of £9 million from Leeds.
By that point, Woodgate was a full England international and had been playing for Leeds for five seasons since making his debut in 1998. His time at the club had been dogged by injuries and off field controversies, meaning he would only manage 142 appearances during that time.
In 2000 he had been a defendant alongside team-mate and future Newcastle player Lee Bowyer after an incident outside a nightclub in Leeds which left a student with serious injuries. The initial trial collapsed but at the second trial Woodgate was convicted of affray and sentenced to 100 hours of community service.
When he was able to make it on the pitch though, he continued to impress and when Leeds fell into financial problems clubs started circling, hoping to secure his signature.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, it was Sir Bobby Robson and Newcastle that won the battle, with Woodgate playing 10 games as the team finished in third place and secured a place in the Champions League the following season.
Woodgate would manage 27 games the following season in his only full year at the club, with injuries being the main factor for his continued absences.
Despite that limited game time though, I don’t think there would be many Newcastle fans who would dispute his credentials. In my mind, he was unquestionably the best defender we have had at the club during the Premier League era.
Quite simply he made the art of defending look easy.
He wasn’t blessed with outstanding pace but his reading of the game was absolutely superb, which would give him the edge on even the very best opponents. He was strong in the air and the tackle when he needed to be and his distribution was invariably excellent.
Perhaps the biggest sign of a great player though is how others react to his presence in the team and to make this point I hold up the example of Titus Bramble.
Bramble had all the physical and technical aspects to be a great centre half but he had an uncanny ability to make a catastrophic error at least once a game.
Playing alongside Woodgate those errors became a thing of the past with Bramble enjoying the best spell of his career at the club with the assured presence of Woodgate by his side. Bramble would regress significantly once Woodgate left the club.
Inevitably though, his form was bound to start attracting the attentions of other clubs, even despite his poor fitness record, and it was Real Madrid who would come calling, paying £13.4m to sign him.
While most Newcastle fans were devastated to lose him, the move didn’t look so bad when he didn’t play a single game in his first season in Spain. When he did manage to make his debut, he contrived to score an own goal and get sent off. He would go on to be voted Real Madrid’s worst signing of the 21st century.
From there he returned to England and moved to his hometown club Middlesbrough. Back in familiar surroundings he impressed once more, earning him a move to Tottenham Hotspur where he would win the only major honour of his career, as they won the League Cup in 2008.
From there his career would somewhat peter out with a short spell at Stoke City and a second spell as a player at Middlesbrough, where he is now having a difficult time in his first job in management.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate just how good Woodgate was, and could have been, would be to compare him to John Terry, who was considered one of the best centre backs of his generation.
Woodgate was less than a year older than Terry but made his England debut, four years before Terry would. Woodgate would play only eight times for his country, with Terry playing nearly 80 times and serving as Captain for much of that period, before off-field controversies ended his own international career.
The only thing Woodgate lacked was a strong enough body to ensure he fulfilled his potential. Terry had one and Woodgate didn’t.
Jonathan Woodgate – a brief assignment.
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