When he steps on to the pitch at Old Trafford this evening for England's friendly international with Spain, Jonathan Woodgate will be entitled to believe his undoubted talent is at last being matched by good luck.
The 27-year-old centre-back became a regular at Leeds United AFC at the age of 18, only for off-pitch problems and a succession of injuries to derail his career. Woodgate joined Newcastle United FC in January 2003 but a persistent thigh problem restricted him to only 28 Premiership appearances in his 18 months on Tyneside. Real Madrid CF nevertheless came calling with €20.3m in summer 2004 but the new surroundings did not change Woodgate's fortunes. He spent the whole of his first season in Spain on the sidelines and, just as it looked as if his thigh troubles were at last behind him, the problem flared up yet again in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie with Arsenal FC last February.
Woodgate missed the rest of that season and the arrival of Fabio Capello as coach in the summer spelt the beginning of the end. A number of teams were keen to bring the defender back to England, but the lure of his hometown club Middlesbrough FC proved too strong – and, finally, his luck began to turn. He has missed only two Premiership matches since his loan move to Teesside, where a string of assured displays at the heart of the defence have prompted Steve McClaren to give Woodgate the opportunity to add to his five international caps, the last of which came in March 2004.
"I've always been a big admirer of Jonathan," said McClaren, who will reunite Woodgate with his former Leeds team-mate Rio Ferdinand in England's starting lineup in Manchester. "He's been a revelation since he came back to the Premiership and has kept away from injuries. I know he's been dying to play for England again." The match presents the defender with the perfect opportunity to show Madrid supporters what they missed during his two frustrating seasons in Spain but, having learnt the hard way of the precarious nature of football, Woodgate is wary of taking anything for granted.
"I'm pleased to be back involved after all this time and I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I never stopped believing I would win a recall. I kept the belief that I would get picked again if I got a run of games. I know there was talk of me getting selected before Christmas but I wasn't ready for it then; I am now. I'm playing two and three games a week without any problems and my fitness is getting better all the time. It feels good to be selected because I've been waiting for it for a few years."
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