“In Spain he would be absolutely adored. He gets the rough end of the stick but fair play to him because he’ll keep on trying things. If he gives it away he goes again because he’s confident and has a pair of bo***cks. He wants to play out and that’s why Pep Guardiola bought him. Sometimes he needs to learn when not to do it but we’re talking about a 22 year old here. We should be embracing him for how good he is on the ball. He needs to learn a few bits and pieces but that will come, there are not many defenders who come complete at his age.”
Having broken into the Leeds first team in the late nineties as a teenager and quickly establishing himself as a mainstay in a side that challenged at the very highest level, the 36 year old – now a scout for Liverpool in Spain and Portugal – speaks from experience and knows the importance of letting a young defender make his mistakes on the pitch. To learn and grow from them.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Woodgate himself was a renowned ball-playing centre-back whose composure on the ball and superb reading of the game took him all the way to international recognition. Were it not for injuries he would undoubtedly have amassed more than his eight caps and that in an era when England was spoilt for choice for top class stoppers. Sadly the same cannot be said of today.
“The quality is good but the numbers aren’t there. Phil Jagielka is now 34 and Gary Cahill is in his thirties and they’re still getting in the England squads. Then you have John Stones and Michael Keane and Ben Gibson is coming through at Middlesbrough.”
“But when I was coming through I was competing against Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Carragher and Ledley King. There was a load of us competing for places with Martin Keown and Gareth Southgate as well. Now we have so few because foreign players outweigh English players a lot so the English lads aren’t being given a chance to play. We can’t get them from the youth teams into the first teams and their pathways are getting blocked. Look at Chelsea who have won the UEFA Under 18s league twice on the spin and they’re still waiting. Back in the day if you won a youth cup a couple of those players would get into the first team.”
One option available to the new England manager Gareth Southgate would be to drop Eric Dier further back as we have witnessed at Spurs recently. Woodgate however disagrees.
“I watched him in the Euros and he was probably England’s best player in that tournament. I thought he was fantastic. I didn’t see him as a centre midfielder until Pochettino put him in there; he had obviously seen his qualities and it was an unbelievable decision. I love him as a midfielder and think he’s brilliant as a holder. He can do a job as a centre half but for me his best position is in midfield.”
Fair enough, and Spurs will presumably be glad to return him there once their injury concerns ease. They’ll certainly be happy to field their strongest side again after just one win in the last ten games. Is Woodgate’s former club in a mini-crisis?
“You can spin it both ways with Spurs because they’re a hard team to beat. They have a fantastic manager down there and a young squad. One hundred per cent you cannot write Spurs off because they’ve got a young, hungry group of players. Look at last season and how close they came. I know they fell away and got stuffed up at Newcastle but they’ve got leaders in that team. There is Harry Kane, Vertonghen and Alderweireld. Dier is a young lad but he’s a leader too. Then you have Lloris so there are leaders throughout that team. They can’t be written off.”
A victory against struggling Swansea this Saturday afternoon will help their cause while just under a thousand miles away in Catalonia sees the biggest game on the continent, arguably the world. Having played in and experienced a clasico himself, Woodgate is relishing the prospect of Real Madrid and Barcelona butting heads once again and pinpoints the absence of Gareth Bale as the only thing that separates the Spanish giants.
Which begs the question: How does the Welshman compare to the two megastars who will surely dominate proceedings this weekend?
“To reach the heights of Ronaldo and Messi then you’re talking a different level from that. If they played in a different generation then Gareth Bale would be up there as the best player in the world.”