Jonathan Woodgate
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Jonathan Woodgate: Howe appointment a great coup for Magpies

| 16.11.2021

Jonathan Woodgate on Newcastle, Tottenham and much more

In the second part of our exclusive interview with Jonathan Woodgate, the former England defender discusses his time as Middlesbrough manager, his Real Madrid debut, Jadon Sancho, Zinedine Zidane, Ben White, Conor Gallagher, Tottenham and Eddie Howe’s appointment at Newcastle.

Woodgate talked about his time with England in our first piece, but he kicked off the second part by giving us his thoughts on which team will win the Premier League.

Chelsea win the Premier League this season; their depth is frightening

I really fancy Chelsea to win the Premier League this year, just because they barely concede. Once they get Romelu Lukaku firing on all cylinders, I reckon they’re going to be a monster team. I just love the way those full-backs bomb forward; Reece James and Ben Chilwell are just so suited to this style of play Thomas Tuchel has implemented. The shape suits the team, and their two central midfielders really dictate the play. I like their intensity, too, as a unit.

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Look at the depth of the squad as well; it’s absolutely gigantic. If James doesn’t play, Cesar Azpilicueta comes in. If Chilwell isn’t starting, Marcos Alonso is. They’ve got Trevor Chalobah coming through, Thiago Silva, Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen. They’ve got so much depth within their squad, it’s frightening. Even Ruben Loftus-Cheek is playing unbelievably from a deeper position. For me, they’re going to be really tough to beat to the title this season.

Liverpool and Man City will be right up there as well, but then it’s a tough call for that final spot in the top four. I think I’d have to put Man United in. Arsenal have really impressed me. Mikel Arteta has been under immense pressure but I love what he’s doing with that team at the moment. He’s going to be a top, top manager. I love his style of play, I love how much he believes in his younger players. I just think top four is too much of an ask for them this season – I think the Cristiano Ronaldo effect gets United into the top four.

I’m Middlesbrough manager at the time, we get beat on a Saturday and I’ve got to manage my lad’s team on Sunday morning with a load of Boro fans on the sideline giving me stick!

I’m horrible to be around after a defeat as a manager. Horrendous. Just ask my wife. If we get beat, I’ll get back home, stick myself in my own little room and put the tele on. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I can’t. Nothing calms you down. But the next day, when you go into work, you’re straight again. It’s done; you’re over it. You’ve got to move on quickly; take the night to get over it and get back at it.

My little lad absolutely adores football, and I give him a bit of a hard time to be honest with you. He just wants to play football. I don’t like putting too much pressure on him; all I want is for him to work as hard as he can. If he doesn’t do that then it’s not good enough. It doesn’t matter how you play, I just want to see you working hard. Do the basics right and play with a smile on your face; that’s all I want. He plays all over the pitch. I think it’s good for young players to try loads of different positions because you really find out where your strengths are. It doesn’t make any sense at such a young age to stick to one position, because your centre-forward will probably end up growing up to be a centre-half, and vice versa. It’s about enjoying the game and learning all the time.

Me and Graeme Lee are managers of my lad’s Sunday League team. You can imagine it, right, I was Middlesbrough manager at the time, we get beat on a Saturday, then I’ve got to turn up with my lad on a Sunday and pick the team for these kids, and I’ve got Boro fans on the side of the pitch giving me stick! I’ve just got to stand there and try to manage a kids’ game of football.

I know a lot of ex-players will take their kids to football matches and keep themselves to themselves, not get involved with the training or anything. But – and no disrespect to the other parents – the kids are going to get better coaching from me and Graeme because of our experience. Why wouldn’t I help out and coach the kids?

What Ronaldo said to me after THAT Real Madrid debut…

I’d say I’ve probably been asked about my Real Madrid debut every time I’ve been interviewed, or every time I’m on TV. I always get asked about it. I just can’t wait until someone has a worse debut than me, honestly.

I’ve got to say the fans were always really good to me out in Madrid – even when I got sent off on my debut. The whole stadium stood up and clapped me. I never really got any grief off the supporters. If I was getting stick from them, I couldn’t understand them anyway at the time, so it didn’t really bother me. I’ve been called much worse out and about in Middlesbrough over the years so I just took all of that criticism on the chin!

Ronaldo, Real Madrid

I was 24 when I made my debut at Real Madrid – the main thing people forget about that game is that we won, thankfully. I was over the moon about that, to be honest with you. Ronaldo was the first one to come and talk to me after that game. He asked how I was, and obviously I told him I was disappointed with myself. He saw the positives, though. I’d obviously missed a whole season through injury, and he told me not to be disappointed with myself, because my leg was fine. That was the most important thing; that I’d got through my debut without getting injured. “You’re on the up, now” he told me.

That was great to hear, especially from a player of that stature. It really helped me get over things, and I quickly realised everyone makes mistakes throughout their career. I was just glad we won the game.

I wasn’t a superstar like Beckham or Owen; I had to really make an effort to fit in at Madrid

It would have been difficult for me to leave Newcastle if it was for any other club than Real Madrid. I know Liverpool were interested in me, but when you get an offer like Real Madrid, it’s just never something you’re going to turn down.

We had a really good team at Newcastle and we were building something strong with Bobby Robson. We had a fantastic talisman up front in Alan Shearer and some outstanding young players. We were on the climb, and I do believe that if we’d have invested a bit more and kept Bobby Robson, things might have been a bit different.

Bobby Robson

Ronaldo stands out to me as the player I got on most with during my time with Madrid; he was really good to me from my first day. He helped me when I was injured and would always check up on me. We’d go out together quite regularly for food. When my friends came over from Middlesbrough he’d entertain them; that’s just surreal, and I’m sure my mates were thinking the same thing as me: ‘Oh my God, I’m having meals and going out with one of the best players in the world’. I really can’t speak highly enough of him.

Michel Salgado is another one; a great guy. It’s funny because everyone is at different stages of their lives, so a lot of the players were settled down with families, but I was a young, single lad. Michael Owen joined at the same time as me, but he had a young family so that’s where his priorities rightly were, so we didn’t really get up to much off the pitch, but we keep in touch now. I still try and meet up with him whenever I can.

That squad took me in, and they understood how difficult a move it was for me. My Spanish isn’t bad, either. I can hold a conversation. I wanted to throw myself into the culture out there, that was important to me, so I ended up taking something like three lessons a week. it’s important to embrace different cultures; the foreign players who come to England do it, so why shouldn’t we? Before I went out there, I spoke with Steve McManaman, and he told me to learn the language as quickly as I could. I got my head down and I picked it up.

I constantly practised and I think it got me a bit more respect with the fans. They could see I was trying my hardest to fit into their culture. Alright, I wasn’t the only English player there, but if you look at me, I’m not David Beckham, I’m not Michael Owen. I wasn’t like them; I wasn’t a world superstar like those two, so I had to really make an effort in as many other ways as I could.

Man United’s style doesn’t suit Sancho… put him in the Liverpool team and you’d have a completely different player, I’m sure

I’m all for English players moving abroad. Why wouldn’t you, if the right club came along? Not only is it a great experience, but it’s an opportunity for game-time as well. Tammy Abraham wasn’t getting many minutes at Chelsea, and look at him now. It’s the same with Jadon Sancho; he wasn’t getting a look in at Man City so he went out to Dortmund and ended up becoming one of the best wingers in the Bundesliga during his time with the club. He tore up the division. Sancho and Jude Bellingham both showed some serious bottle, by the way, going to play in a different country at their ages. I’ve got a lot of time for that.

Things haven’t gone exactly according to plan for Sancho since he signed for Man United this summer, and I put it down to the style of play; it doesn’t suit him. If United replicated Dortmund’s approach then it would be a different ball game altogether, but Man United don’t play that way; they don’t play the sort of football Sancho is used to. Jadon Sancho is an extraordinary talent; if you play to his strengths, then he’ll come good. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll come good again. Put him in the Liverpool team, and he’d be a completely different player, I’m sure.

Man United need someone in the middle of the park to control the game; that’s what’s letting them down at the moment. Everything else is in place; they’ve got some exceptional players across the rest of the pitch, but they’re just lacking that character in the middle of the park.

On former teammate Zidane and Man Utd rumours

I had a great relationship with all of my teammates at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane included. He was an extraordinary footballer, he always seemed to have so much time on the ball, he was so balanced. And when he ran with the ball, I think he was quicker running with the ball than he was without it.

Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid

He was such an elegant footballer. He’s gone into management and done an incredible job – his record speaks for itself. He’s been blessed with an incredible bunch of players who all seem to respect him – and why wouldn’t you? He’s a humble guy, he’s done it as a player and he’s doing it as a manager, too. Let’s see what his next move is.

I really like Ben White, but his biggest test is yet to come

I could never quite understand the pressure Mikel Arteta was apparently under. It makes no sense to me; it’s similar to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; why give these managers all that money to spend without buying into what they’re trying to do and letting them build their own squads? It’s ridiculous to get rid of managers so quickly. The club clearly bought into Arteta’s vision in the first place, so of course they’re going to stick by him, and it’s turned out to be a really good decision. He’s done a brilliant job.

I watched a lot of Ben White when he was at Leeds, before he went back to Brighton and I really like him. OK, there were question marks over his move at the start of the season, but there’s always going to be when you move to a big club for such a big fee. In those early games he didn’t have Gabriel playing next to him, who I think is a great partner for him.

The big test for White is when he comes up against some of the really big teams in the division; that’s where he’ll need to go up another level or two, but take nothing away from the start he’s made and the impact he’s had on that defence.

Conor Gallagher is the signing of the season in the Premier League

The signing of the season so far, for me, has been Conor Gallagher to Crystal Palace from Chelsea. He’s in my dream team as well, actually. I love the way he plays. I watched a lot of him at Charlton under Lee Bowyer, he’s got so much energy, he scores and creates goals. He’s a top player. Patrick Vieira’s style of play really suits Gallagher; he’s come in and changed everything tactically, and it’s paid off for him – not least because of the impact Gallagher has had in that team since coming in.

Spurs have got two world-class players, here’s where they can strengthen…

The whole situation at Tottenham has been dealt with quite badly after Jose Mourinho left the club, if I’m being honest. How many managers were constantly getting linked and turning the job down? Then you had Nuno Espirito Santo turn up, who’s a good manager in his own right, but he didn’t get the time. That’s what confuses and frustrates me; he gets manager of the month in August and he’s out the door after 11 games. Football’s very unforgiving, though, and sometimes clubs have to make these decisions.

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But to bring someone in of Antonio Conte’s quality is a massive coup for that football club, and I really believe he’ll do well there. Hopefully, he’ll be given some money to spend because he’s got two world-class players in Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. I just want to see them strengthen elsewhere. Those two get into most Premier League teams. Son has recently signed a long-term contract at the club, but if for whatever reason he became available, I’d imagine Liverpool would be all over him. He’s their type of player. Every team would want Son – he’s outstanding.

I think the full-backs at the club are decent enough; I’d be looking to buy another centre-half; I know they brought in Cristian Romero in the summer but I still feel like that’s an area they can tighten up in. And then I want to see more creativity going forward. We’ve spoken about how good Kane and Son are, but behind those, who’s going to produce top, top numbers? I just feel there are too many similar players in the centre of the park in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Oliver Skipp and Harry Winks.

The ‘immediate problem’ Newcastle have…

Eddie Howe will bring excitement to Newcastle Football Club, there’s no doubt about that. If you look at how he played at Bournemouth, they were always on the front foot, always trying to win games, and that’s what Newcastle fans want. The Newcastle public are an amazing bunch of fans – I spent 18 months there, I know what they like. Howe will have their backing, I know that. All I want to see is excitement.

I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as perhaps people think it might be to get players in the door. How much money will the new owners throw at the club? Who knows?But Eddie Howe will improve the players they’ve got at the minute. I worked with his coaching staff at Bournemouth and they are unbelievable. They will improve Newcastle United ten-fold. They’re meticulous; they look at every avenue possible. I think it’s a fantastic appointment, I really do. I’m just happy that Eddie Howe is back in the game, because I’ve always thought he was a top manager and a top guy as well.

The fans will help massively in that relegation scrap; they’ll buy into what Eddie Howe is trying to do from day one. But they’re five points off safety at the moment, and back-to-back wins in the Premier League isn’t easy at all – especially when you’ve not won a game all season. Their next few fixtures are quite favourable, but it’s going to be a tough old slog.

Newcastle haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league this season, that has to change as soon as possible if you’re to have any chance of winning a game in this division. When you’ve got the likes of Callum Wilson up front, you’re always giving yourself half a chance of winning games, but when you’re conceding as frequently as Newcastle are, you make it hard for yourselves to get three points from anywhere.

I can’t see the club going crazy in the January transfer window, I really can’t – but they do need to strengthen at the back, they really do. You can’t see many Premier League clubs selling to Newcastle at the minute; especially teams in and around them in the table. That’s going to be the immediate problem they have.

Missing out on promotion last season still keeps me awake now

I’m just waiting to see what comes up at the moment; what different projects there are out there. It’s unfortunate in the job that I’m in now, because you’ve basically just got to wait for someone to lose their job, but that’s how it is. I’ll just have to see what comes up.

I had a great opportunity down at Bournemouth to go and learn from different coaches. I got to meet a whole new group of people and I really enjoyed my time with the club. You don’t always make the right decisions in management, but I feel like I got that one right. Sometimes you’ve got to step out of your comfort zone and go five hours down the other end of the country to keep on learning. I was lucky enough to get the chance from Jason Tindall.

The play-offs last season still keep me up now. It was an absolute nightmare and I still think about it a lot. We were so close. We won the first leg 1-0 and then our captain, Steve Cook gets injured and has to come off. We had to make a couple of changes and things just didn’t go our way in the second leg. In hindsight you look at different things you could have done in the game, but it’s just got to be treated as a massive learning curve for myself, as well as the players. After the game I just told them to bottle that feeling. Bottle it up and keep it with you; it’s one of those feelings you don’t want to experience again, so let this be the last time you do.

They’re a great bunch of lads, as are the backroom staff, so hopefully they go up this season. They’re such a fantastic club, run really well, they get their recruitment right and they’re flying in the table at the moment, so I’m really hoping they’re back in the top-flight next season.

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Warren Barner