Friday, 25 January 2008

Woodgate on his way?

Jonathan Woodgate finds the door. What happens next?

Jonathan Woodgate's days at the Riverside seem numbered after Boro reportedly accepted a £7m+ offer from Tottenham for the defender. Its a move that has divided opinion.

There are convincing arguments for striving to keep Woodgate at the club. Fully fit and on form, he's the best defender at the club. Selling an England international will hardly mollify those fans and players who feel the club lacks ambition. With the team tottering two points above the drop zone, this should be a time of adding to the squad rather than selling off a talented player.

However, it seems Gareth Southgate has been swayed by the arguments for selling Woodgate. Centre back is one of the few areas where the squad has real strength. Robert Huth has excelled since his return from injury, David Wheater has been the find of the Premier League season and Emmanuel Pogatetz won player of the year last season from the heart of the defence. Woodgate has been struggling to justify a first team place in recent weeks. With other areas of the team in need of urgent reinforcement, the decision to cash in on Woodgate becomes more understandable. There are quality alternatives in our squad; and there's Chris Riggott too.

Woodgate has failed to maintain last season's imperious form since making his move from Real Madrid permanent. For the vast majority of 06/07, Woodgate exuded composure and class, producing impeccable perfomances on a consistent basis. Sadly, this year has seen displays ranging from the average to the inept. There's been the odd reminder of his talents, such as at Portsmouth, but they've become all too rare. Most of his displays have been competent but spoiled by lapses of concentration. Some have been frankly awful, with the Villa molestation at the Riverside probably the worst. Woodgate's efforts to prevent Gabriel Agbonlahor's third were embarrassing.

Its hard to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong. Woodgate has struggled for fitness this year, never looking fully recovered from his summer operation after being pitched in against Newcastle in August. However, Woodgate has had an apalling fitness record throughout his a career, and barely trained during his successful run last year, yet has rarely struggled for form when available.

His attitude has been increasingly questioned. Some reports have suggested the decision to make Julio Arca skipper after Boateng's demotion irritated Woodgate. His recreational history is too long and potentially libellous to go through here but its safe to say hopes he'd come back from Spain a reformed character seem somewhat naive.

Its impossible to know how accurate the murmurings about Woodgate's fitness and behaviour are. That makes its very hard to judge whether Southgate would be right to let Woodgate go. The fact that the club seem to have decided to allow him to move on without much of a fight may be telling.

One thing for certain is that this transfer window is shaping up to be a defining period of Gareth Southgate's stewardship. The McClaren fingerprints are being quickly erased from the line-up. The decision to let Woodgate go would be a huge gamble. There is a fair chance that Juande Ramos, an obviously shrewd manager, could revive Woodgate's form provided he can maintain fitness. That would leave Spurs with a bargain and Southgate looking foolish.

That said, the passage of time may show that Southgate has picked the correct moment to cash in on a player who is approaching 30, injury prone and in dismal form. The protracted Afonso Alves saga finally seems to be inching to a conclusion, and if a £12m deal can be sealed, that would be as momentous a decision as that regarding Woodgate's future. Southgate can't afford to get it wrong.

**Its Mansfield Town, 91st in the Football League, tomorrow lunchtime in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Gary O'Neil and Mido remain doubtful but Julio Arca should be back. Lets hope Gareth remembers the Notts County farce of his early managerial days and plays as strong a side as possible.

Prediction: Mansfield 0 Boro 2

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