Woodgate’s ‘standards’ paying off at revitalised Middlesbrough

‘Woody’ goes head to head with Mourinho as Spurs visit Riverside in FA Cup clash

Middlesbrough assistant Robbie Keane and  manager Jonathan Woodgate.  Woodgate remains warmly received at Spurs, if not quite as popular as  Keane. Photograph:  Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Middlesbrough assistant Robbie Keane and manager Jonathan Woodgate. Woodgate remains warmly received at Spurs, if not quite as popular as Keane. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

 

Jonathan Woodgate stands outside the room, eyes glued to the digital clock on his mobile phone. The instant the display flicks to 2pm he reaches for the door handle, takes a deep breath and prepares to address Middlesbrough’s weekly media conference; as always he is bang on time. Punctuality matters to a manager particularly hot on a set of “standards” embracing smartness (matching black shoes and belts are de rigueur with club suits), dinner table etiquette and all round good manners.

Whisper it but, a couple of weeks shy of his 40th birthday, the former England and Real Madrid centre half seems to be morphing into a cross between Bruce Rioch – the famously disciplinarian manager who in the 1980s led Boro from the brink of liquidation to England’s old first division – and Gareth Southgate.

It is a startling transformation. In 2008, when Woodgate’s header won the League Cup final for Tottenham at Chelsea’s expense, few could have envisaged him reinventing himself as a studiously thoughtful, uber-professional young Middlesbrough manager who on Sunday goes head to head with José Mourinho when Spurs visit the Riverside in the third round of the FA Cup.

Twelve years ago “Woody” had many fine qualities, but was far too fond of a good night out with his old Teesside mates to be taken remotely seriously as future leadership material.

How wrong can you be? Despite struggling at the wrong end of the Championship for most of his debut season after succeeding Tony Pulis, Woodgate’s young, inexperienced team are suddenly renascent. Not content with winning their past four games – including victories at promotion-chasing West Brom and Preston – they have kept three clean sheets in the process, banishing pre-Christmas rumours of Neil Warnock’s apparently imminent installation as the new manager.

Dreams

Instead Woodgate is readying himself for a tactical duel with Mourinho. Ultra-lean and straight backed, he still looks in good enough shape to turn back time and pull on a Spurs shirt once more but is more interested in endeavouring to emulate the success of a Boro predecessor.

“Steve McClaren won the League Cup [in 2004] and got us to an incredible Uefa Cup final [in 2006],” he says. “Who would have thought Middlesbrough would be in a European final but cups are what dreams are made of.”

Woodgate wishes he could remember more of the one he won for Spurs. “I just thought I’d get a run on Didier Drogba and I was brave, stuck my head in there and it went in. It was the best goal I’ve ever scored with my nose. I can’t remember the celebrations mind, it’s all a bit of a blur!

“The League Cup was the only thing I won, which is something I look back on with a bit of regret. I played in good teams at Leeds and Newcastle, but you can’t say a team’s great unless you win trophies.

“I thought Tottenham would have won something under Mauricio Pochettino. He did an amazing job on the budget he had but I’m sure their first trophy in 12 years is now on the horizon because José Mourinho’s a serial winner. He’s incredible, the best there’s been and still top drawer.”

Despite his Spurs stint being hampered by injuries, Woodgate remains warmly received in north London, if not quite as popular as his assistant Robbie Keane. “Robbie’s a god down there, a legend. But Spurs fans have always been good to me.”

Two strikers

Sunday promises to be, temporarily at least, rather less friendly, but Woodgate has been buoyed by the arrival of two strikers, Patrick Roberts and Lukas Nmecha, on loan from Manchester City. In many respects it is a compliment that Pep Guardiola has trusted him with their development but, typically, Boro’s manager insisted on interviewing the pair before agreeing to sign them.

“I needed to look in the whites of their eyes and talk honestly with them. We want to develop a hungry young squad. But it’s all about being a team player, about putting the team first.”

That mantra lies at the core of Boro’s so called “golden thread” philosophy. Its architect, the club’s former head of recruitment Adrian Bevington, may have departed the Riverside at the end of last month but the ideology remains intact.

“Of course the golden thread’s still there,” says Woodgate. “Young players have been given their chance this season. Aynsley Pears [a 21-year-old goalkeeper who spent the last campaign on loan at Gateshead but has kept seven clean sheets in 14 appearances since replacing the injured Darren Randolph] and Marcus Tavernier [a 20-year-old left winger] have been magnificent. The golden thread’s running right through our club.”

Mourinho must ensure it does not turn into a tripwire. – Guardian

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