Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate on returning to Leeds United, Marcelo Bielsa and Patrick Bamford
Jonathan Woodgate didn’t want to leave Leeds United during the early stages of his playing career but simply didn’t have a choice following the club’s financial implosion.
The former Whites defender, who will return to Elland Road as the manager of Middlesbrough this weekend, came through the ranks at Thorp Arch before leaving for Newcastle United in 2003.
Woodgate was part of an exciting young side at Leeds, where he played alongside the likes of Alan Smith, Robbie Keane, Rio Ferdinand and Lee Bowyer – just to name a few.
But as the club chased Premier League success, failure to secure a coveted Champions League spot in the 2000/01 season had huge monetary implications and resulted in several high-profile sales.
After finishing outside the top three for a second consecutive season, Woodgate had to be sold.
“I had to leave, I had no choice,” says Woodgate ahead of this weekend’s clash. “It was either that or the club would be f*****. It would have been done.
“I didn’t want to leave. The fans knew that. I am not sure about others. I didn’t.
“I went back with Newcastle, first game of the season and drew 2-2. Played there for Middlesbrough a couple of times. Unbelievable reception.
“They were chasing the dream and we had an unbelievable chairman there at the time, Peter Ridsdale. He was fantastic for me I had a great relationship with him as did a lot of the players.
“But they chased the dream and Livepool pipped us for third by one point so that's the fine margins, the gamble didn't pay off.
“Now they are on the up again and they've got a top manager.”
Woodgate is looking forward to pitting his wits against Marcelo Bielsa who took charge of the Whites at the start of the 2018/19 campaign.
The 64-year-old, who is renowned for his meticulous approach, almost ended Leeds’ 15-year top-flight drought after narrowly missing out on promotion through the play-offs last season.
But despite an agonising defeat to Derby County over two legs back in May, Bielsa’s men have bounced back strongly and are challenging for a top-two spot yet again.
Woodgate encountered the Argentine last season when the Boro boss was working as the club’s first-team coach under Tony Pulis.
At the time Bielsa was still in the mist of the controversial ‘spygate’ scandal and was making a point of showing off his extensive research on opposition teams.
“He handed me a big fact file when Leeds were at the Riverside,” recalls Woodgate. “When I met him in the coaches office he had all the formations we played last season, the substitutes we made and changes in certain minutes for every game.
“He had that for every game. All the subs we made in certain minutes, times we scored goals, impacts off the bench, how does the right-back play … a lot of detail.
“A lot of managers will have those things, but the detail was very good. The layers say he is very thorough. All managers do do things like that but he gave us his.”
Woodgate isn’t too worried about a repeat of spygate ahead of this anticipated fixture, though, with Boro facing something of an injury crisis.
“It doesn’t matter if there is someone here today, we don’t have any players to train anyway!” quips Woodgate on Friday morning.
Yet joking aside, the size of the task facing Boro is a big one.
Leeds have won their last four league games and have lost just once on home turf this season. Patched-up Boro, meanwhile, have recently ended a 10-game winless run and are languishing just above the relegation zone.
And despite remaining positive, Woodgate is under no illusions about the size of the task.
“Really good team,” replies the Boro boss when asked if Leeds are the best side in the Championship. “They are well drilled, they are up there with the West Broms really, I think they are the best team we’ve played this season.”
Even so, Woodgate would love nothing more than three points.
“Middlesbrough is my club, I was born and bred here,” he makes clear. “But Leeds have a special place in my heart.But there’s only one team I want to win. I’m desperate for us to win down there, but it’s going to be really tough.”
One opposition player who is well known among Boro fans is former striker Partrick Bamford, Bielsa’s first-choice striker at Elland Road.
The 26-year-old, who has scored six league goals this season, left Teesside in the summer of 2018 due to financial reasons, yet Woodgate doesn’t believe the forward wanted to depart.
“I didn’t think we wanted to leave really but they had to make a change to make more money and Patrick had to be sacrificed,” the Boro boss adds.
“Patrick can score goals, if you can get a confident Patrick Bamford he will score goals for you. He will score 20 goals this season.
“Patrick cares believe me, he thinks about his game. Ok, he’s not one of these centre-forwards who always looks like an aggressive type, but he’ll put his body in.
“I think the Leeds fans have been on him a bit this year but he’s starting to repay them now and show what he can do. Patrick Bamford is one of the best strikers in the league.”