Jonathan Woodgate on being sacked by Middlesbrough and why Conte can end Tottenham’s trophy drought
Jonathan Woodgate is approaching the two-year anniversary of one of the toughest days of his career.
The former Tottenham defender was sacked by his boyhood club Middlesbrough in what was his first ever stint as a manager back in summer 2020 at the height of the first lockdown.
Boro had just returned from the three-month football shutdown but Woodgate’s fate had already been hanging in the balance following a winless run of 13 games, leaving his side out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
From the high of being appointed by his beloved local team to the crushing low of being let go during a time where many people were already feeling isolated and desperate was difficult to take.
Woodgate – who is spreading awareness about discussing mental health in sport in association with CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) – admits he struggles to come to terms with a moment where he feels he ‘let people down’.
Jonathan Woodgate has opened up on his struggles after being sacked by his boyhood club Middlesbrough at the height of lockdown
Woodgate’s side had gone 13 games without a win before he was sacked after football’s three-month shutdown during Covid pandemic
‘June the 23rd – that was the exact date,’ he told Sportsmail ahead of the launch of the second series of the Under the Surface podcast, with menswear brand Original Penguin in aid of CALM.
‘I’ll never get over that date. It was really tough, we were in Covid at the time. I did find it hard because it’s your hometown club and you feel you’ve let people down. You might get mauled for a week or so and then you’ve got to get on with it – reboot yourself and move on to your next plan.
‘If you keep thinking over and over again what went wrong and what you could’ve done better, you’re going to make it worse for yourself. You find it tough but you have to move on quick.’
Warnock took the reins from Woodgate and led Boro to safety, while the former England international focused on his family, though breaking the news to his son – a die-hard Middlesbrough fan – was particularly soul-crushing.
Woodgate admits he will struggle to get over the day he lost his dream job at Boro and spoke out about the pain of having to tell his son
‘My priority was my family and my kids weren’t at school,’ he added. ‘It was all about the kids and I’m glad they weren’t at school because they could have got sly banter.
‘My son was gutted. He was a Middlesborough fan as well. He loved going to the games so it was hard for him as well.’
Woodgate – a former captain of Tottenham and Boro – insists he is unflappable and can handle pressure and setbacks, but has urged any player or manager who is struggling with their mental health to get their thoughts out and speak to someone.
‘It’s really important because players do struggle,’ he says. ‘With the pressures on the game these days, you won’t always get players who are exactly the same. Some have strong mentalities and some don’t. If a player has a really strong mentality he might still be struggling inside. The pressure – whether you’re playing or your injured – can be really tough.
‘If there’s someone suffering with their mental health, go and speak to someone, whether it’s a friend or whoever. Open up to them, and see if they can help you and point you in the right direction.
The former England star has urged players and managers to seek help if they are struggling with their mental health
‘I’m quite resolute. I think to myself “what will be will be”. I was devastated for a week [after being sacked] but I have the ability to move on and not think about it.
‘I didn’t speak to anyone about it. It’s different people dealing with different things. You get people ringing you asking how you are. Obviously I’m gutted but I’ll get over it – that’s how I look at it.’
Woodgate had enough pressure to get results in the dugout as it was, but his life was made even more difficult by the stick he was getting away from the pitch – with one Boro fan heckling him at his son’s Sunday League game.
‘I was managing my kid’s team on a Sunday with Graeme Lee – who’s just been sacked by Hartlepool – and I got some abuse from Middlesborough fans, because we got beat the day before. This is a game at grassroots level. You always get one person like that in every walk of life. But you’ve got to block it out and stay focused.
‘When you’re on the sidelines you don’t really notice anything, fans giving you abuse. Sometimes when you watch the games on Sky and you see one of the players get really close to the crowd and they’re absolutely abusing him. I look at it now and think “oh my god”. But as footballers you have to take the abuse.’
Woodgate joined Real Madrid in 2004 but he didn’t play for the first year due to injury
Woodgate had some great highs in his career – scoring the winning goal for Tottenham against Chelsea in the 2008 League Cup final – while he played nearly 400 games during a career that saw him snapped up by Real Madrid.
But while moving to the Bernabeu should be a footballer’s dream, Woodgate’s move in 2004 was something of a nightmare in a spell that was mired by injuries and struggles to hit top form.
He lived alone in the Spanish capital after being signed from Newcastle for around £13million and had missed the entirety of the first season due to injury.
Nearly a year later, he finally made his debut against Athletic Bilbao but had a horror first game – scoring an own goal and later getting sent off for a second yellow.
Woodgate insists he was not affected by that infamous game – saying what he really struggled with was his constant battle to stay fit after joining ‘the biggest club in the world’. He received stick from the Spanish media – but thankfully for Woodgate – he didn’t understand the language enough to read it.
‘The debut was no problem at all because I was back fit and I wasn’t bothered about that,’ he says. ‘But the time before that, when you’ve joined the biggest club in the world and you don’t play for a year – that was difficult.
The move ended up being a nightmare as he scored an own goal and was sent off on his debut
‘I was lucky enough because I didn’t speak the language so I couldn’t read what the newspapers were saying! That was the hardest part about being in Spain – being injured, because you know you can make a difference. I couldn’t do that for a year and it was a challenging time.’
Woodgate says mental health has become much bigger on the agenda in the present day, but feels back when he was a player any concerns he had would have been swiftly dismissed, and is glad players will now get an arm round the shoulder and given the help they need.
‘Back then if you went to a manager and said “this is tough” – he’d say “you need to toughen up a bit”,’ Woodgate adds. ‘I’m sure if I got a knock on my door and one of the players said to me “listen gaffer, I’m struggling a bit mentally”, you’d have more of an arm around him and you’d point him in the direction where he’d get help.’
Woodgate – who retired from football in 2016 – has since bounced back from his axing by Boro and had a successful stint as Bournemouth boss as interim manager following the sacking of Jason Tindall in February 2021, just eight months after losing his own job at the Riverside Stadium.
Woodgate has bounced back from his Boro sacking with an impressive spell at Bournemouth
He was able to stabilise the team and led them to the Championship play-off places, eventually losing in the semi-finals against Brentford – who went on to earn promotion to the Premier League.
Woodgate didn’t extend his stay beyond the end of that campaign as the Cherries opted for Scott Parker, but he is intent on pursuing his next challenge in the dugout.
‘It’s about finding the right club,’ he says. ‘You put your CV out to different clubs, sometimes you don’t get a reply back. Sometimes you get an interview, sometimes you get down to the final two. You have to be open to various clubs and I am.’
Woodgate spent arguably the most successful spell of his career at Tottenham where he spent three years from 2008 to 2011, with the allure of a team challenging for Europe enough to leave his beloved Boro.
Unthinkably, he was the last man to guide Spurs to a trophy after his famous header against the Blues in 2008 – his first season at the club – and he admits he is baffled that the club haven’t managed to claim any silverware since as they bid to end their 12-year trophy drought under Antonio Conte.
‘Spurs have world-class players – I’m sure if they had kept those players, Bale, Modric [they could have done better] – but it’s hard to keep those players,’ Woodgate says.
Woodgate was the last person to win Tottenham a trophy, stretching back to 2008, after a famous header against Chelsea in the Carling Cup final
He feels Tottenham will reclaim silverware if Antonio Conte can bring consistent performances
‘Now you’ve got a world-class manager in Conte. He will hopefully bring Spurs trophies. Pochettino did an incredible job when he was there. To get to the Champions League final. He finished second one year, third place behind Leicester – that could have been their opportunity. Pochettino was brilliant with a young aggressive team led by Kane. But they should have won trophies, they should have.’
Woodgate’s 2007-08 side had quality players – the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Robbie Keane and Ledley King – but they finished 11th that season and Spurs have had far better players without winning anything.
The former Leeds and Newcastle man said the team simply believed they could ‘beat anyone’ but lacked consistency. Tottenham had similar struggles in that area last season, with Conte initially failing to breed regular wins.
‘Consistency wins you titles,’ he adds. ‘It doesn’t win you cups because you can play good in the third round and not so well in the fourth round and still go through. In the league you need to be solid every game.
‘Spurs have just finished fourth so they’ve done really well. When Conte first came in I didn’t think they could do it but he’s done a magnificent job. I think they’ve had a really good season.’
Woodgate feels Conte has Spurs on track for success after bringing ‘balance’ to the team
Woodgate is a big admirer of Cristian Romero since arriving at the club from Atalanta and feels he complements Eric Dier well – praising Conte for bringing ‘balance’ to his defence in a back three.
He said the Italian had done brilliantly to get the fans behind him and feels his ‘settled’ line-up will put Spurs on track for success in the future.
‘I like Romero, I watched him quite a bit when he was at Atalanta. He’s a front foot defender, he’s aggressive. I like his authority. Him and Dier – then you’ve got Ben Davies on the left side, it brings good balance. Conte’s improved that three so much since the start of the season.
‘What Conte’s done since he’s come in is get the fans right back on side. It’s only since Pochettino that the fans have really been onside with a manager.
‘I think what he’s done with the formation is kept to a settled side. The two wing-backs he has changed often, but he’s kept the same players and beliefs and he’s done really well.’
Woodgate was speaking ahead of the release of the Under the Surface podcast with Original Penguin x CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). To watch the first episode of series two, head to www.originalpenguin.co.uk/pages/calm-underthesurface