The world of football loves its fairytales. Castel di Sangro. The Miracle of Istanbul. Jimmy Glass. But for each last-gasp survival story, every ecstatic victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, somewhere there are also eleven men wandering aimless and heartbroken, or slumped down on the turf with their heads in their hands.
Last season should have been Middlesbrough’s fairytale, and it is a town and a team that could do with one. The football club had stood on the brink of liquidation in 1986, before being saved by a consortium led by 28-year-old home-town boy Steve Gibson. In 1997, it reached the FA and League Cup Finals and lost both, in a season which would also see relegation from the Premiership after the team was docked three points for pulling out of a game against Blackburn following a massive illness and injury crisis. Since its latest demotion from the top table in 2009, it has sat in the shadows and watched Newcastle and Sunderland drag the proud name of North East football down.
Meanwhile, the steel industry that kept the town afloat for so long has drifted into anachronism. The shedding of jobs over the course of a decade or so by first British Steel and then Corus in Teesside’s manufacturing heartlands seemed to have been staunched by a 2007 takeover by Indian giants Tata, but the following years have seen the drip-drip of redundancies continue, culminating in the mothballing of the Redcar plant two weeks back. An area that is, as actor Neil Grainger sang in his late-season motivational videos, “built on steel and iron” is on its last legs.
On the pitch, though, things seemed at last to be looking up. A team anchored by Ben Gibson, an England under-21 international and the chairman’s nephew, driven by a beard for the ages in Adam Clayton and spearheaded by the most likeable man to come out of Chelsea in decades, Patrick Bamford, had been up with the leaders all season, and with two games to go, remained in contention for automatic promotion. An agonising defeat at Fulham – a comeback with ten men from 3-1 down, foiled at the last after the hosts broke from a corner for which Boro keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos had been sent up – put paid to that; but a win over Brentford in the play-off semi-finals took them back to Wembley, where they would face a Norwich side they had beaten at Carrow Road barely a month earlier.
The Teessiders barely even turned up. On the back foot from the start after their bus to the stadium got stuck in the London traffic, they were 2-0 down within a quarter of an hour, Cameron Jerome capitalising on a mistake from former Norwich defender Daniel Ayala after 12 minutes, and Nathan Redmond slicing through the back line three minutes later.
Meanwhile, the man who could have topped off the fairytale, who had made what was meant to be his final home appearance with a few seconds as a substitute against Brentford at the Riverside Stadium the week before, sat glumly on the bench throughout.
The career of Jonathan Woodgate, born 35 years ago in the Middlesbrough suburb of Nunthorpe, has been an itinerant one. After starting out in the Boro youth team, he left for Leeds at 16, making his debut two years later and coming to be known as the ‘jewel in the crown’ from an academy that had produced players of the calibre of Paul Robinson, James Milner and Aaron Lennon. But as everything behind the scenes at Elland Road began to unravel in the early noughties, he was sold to Newcastle, whom he would help to the UEFA Cup semi-finals, and then on to Real Madrid.
Even then, however, his body was showing signs of the fragility that would never stop plaguing him. Already far from injury-free in England, he was forced by a series of niggles to wait over a year for a Real debut that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, and featured just 12 more times for Los Blancos before his first return to the Riverside in 2006. Back home, though, he blossomed, and within eighteen months, he had earned a move to Spurs.
Perhaps fittingly, the defining game of his career to date – his fifth for the North Londoners – was the first he had started at the top level alongside Ledley King.
John Obi Mikel – who played for Chelsea in the game in question – has, at the age of 28, two league titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, a Champions League and a Europa League to his name, not to mention the Africa Cup of Nations. Woodgate and King share their sole triumph, the 2008 League Cup that Tottenham Hotspur won in ungainly fashion with an injury-time goal from the former after Petr Cech had punched a Jermaine Jenas free-kick into his face.
That Wembley high point came in March; the Lilywhites’ cup run that season had started, coincidentally enough, back at White Hart Lane in September of the previous year with a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, courtesy of goals from Tom Huddlestone and an 18-year-old left back by the name of Gareth Bale. When that game was played, Woodgate was still on the Middlesbrough staff; but while both sides put out strong starting XIs for the fixture, neither he nor King made it onto the pitch.
Infinitely sadly, it is that, rather than the Wembley victory, which more accurately defines the careers of a pairing that, in an era that lionised glory-day throwback John Terry, could have redefined English defending for good.
King broke into the Spurs team at the age of 18, after a youth career which had fuelled expectations that the North Londoners might have found a long-term partner for Sol Campbell. He was destined for central defence, but even in his early appearances in midfield, King radiated class, never seemingly sprinting but always first to the ball, never flustered, always in control.
I remember watching a game at White Hart Lane one year, relatively early on in King’s career. The Paxton Road end – the North Stand – is behind the goal, and I was sitting off towards one side, with the left touchline stretching out ahead. The home defence was in its usual disarray, and a simple pass lifted along the line in front of me was all set to unleash all manner of hell. But even as the opposition’s left winger scented blood and their attacking forces began to hotfoot it towards goal, King, already showing the lightness of a gazelle and the most gossamer of touches, stretched out a leg as the ball looped over his head, brought it down from the heavens and executed a 180 degree turn in one smooth movement. Making the impossible look effortless – that was Ledley King.
As it had Woodgate, injury dogged King from the start – a tackle from Rory Delap (then of Derby) on his full Spurs debut ended up necessitating surgery – but it did not keep him from making his England debut in 2002, at the age of 21. At the European Championships in 2004, he neutralised Thierry Henry in a game that England would have won but for a missed David Beckham penalty and a last-minute team meltdown; and despite what was by then a total lack of cartilage in his left knee, he was taken to South Africa by Fabio Capello for the World Cup in 2010, only to pull his groin within three minutes against the USA in what proved his final international appearance. He bowed to the inevitable at club level two years later.
Meanwhile, Woodgate, who played just 28 times in total alongside the man who should have been his footballing soulmate, soldiers on. Having refused to retire in the wake of last season’s heartache, he is now in the fourth season of his third spell back at Boro, having returned home from North London via a year at Stoke. His body remains a jigsaw one false step away from falling apart entirely, and he has made only a shade over 50 appearances in the red and white in those four years, but with England (after a mere eight caps) long gone, he has one burning desire left. “My career hasn’t been as fulfilled as I wanted,” he told the Guardian on the eve of Wembley last year. “Winning promotion would be one of the best moments of my career. Probably the best.”
Many will tell you that football is all about the late winners, those triumphs against the odds, or even as Danny Blanchflower once said, about glory. But I think, at heart, it is nothing of the kind. Football is about hope. Come the end of this season, two of the most stylish defenders the English game has ever seen will almost certainly be reunited in retirement. When that day comes, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate may still have only one tin-pot trophy between them. That too would have its poetry. But for now, let us have the hope. The Championship title may no longer be what its name suggests, but it is something. For what has gone, and what may be by the end of this season after Teesside’s agonies of the last – all the best, Woody. All the best.