Jonathan Woodgate has played for Real Madrid and England, was manager of his home side Middlesbrough and has had a career the envy of millions. But he is also no stranger to criticism.
His debut with Real Madrid is a legend. It came well over a year after he signed for the club due to injury and did not go according to plan. He scored an own goal and was then sent off. That day in September 2005 is one he can laugh about.
“People always ask me about my debut and how bad it was,” Woodgate said air sports† “I always ask them how their debut at Real Madrid went. That’s my answer. It didn’t bother me at all, because I played for the biggest team in the world.”
Now 42, there is still an air of defiance in his reactions. But speaking ahead of the launch of the second series of the Below the surface podcast with menswear brand Original Penguin and CALM – the campaign against miserable living – there is also more exposure.
For example, those injuries left their mark on him.
“At that point, you don’t know you’re really having a hard time,” he explains.
“Nobody ever knew it was called mental health. You’d just be called soft.
“Obviously it was difficult. When I was in Spain I found it hard because I was injured for a year. You can’t really go out for a weekend when you’re injured because you’re doing everything you can to get fit.”
“You never realize how you get out. What I used to do was stay very positive and believe that you would eventually get fit. But it’s hard because you’re not able to play the sport you adore.
“Often I was also rushed back. It wasn’t just the manager pushing, it was me too. I rushed myself back faster. That was probably a flaw in my personality.”
“I used to hate coming off and trying to stay on as long as I could, usually until halftime. Sometimes it was impossible if you tore your hamstring, but if I had a small hamstring deformity, I could the calf or the thigh, I would try to stay on.
“It was just because I couldn’t handle getting away from supporters. When I heard that moan of, ‘He’s injured again.’ I hated it and I felt really ashamed A little bit ashamed to come out Strange really It’s not easy to deal with but I should have stopped.
“It was selfish of me. Selfish in the team because anything could have happened. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
He would rather bottle up than share his feelings.
“If you went to a manager then and said you were having a hard time, you would be told you have to work harder. They have their priorities, the players who are fit now. That’s how they look at it. It’s being talked about more now. so handled it much better.
“I’m not saying managers lacked empathy back then because I’ve worked with some incredible managers. Bobby Robson was an incredible manager. But I wouldn’t think of going to his office and saying I was having a hard time. “
“I wouldn’t give my problems to anyone else. With my injuries, I wouldn’t get my parents on the phone. I wouldn’t get my sister, my friends, or my wife on the phone, I just might. Maybe I should have and it would have helped.
“You don’t realize at that moment. When you look back, you sure think, damn it, I didn’t feel great. But I didn’t know then what I know now.
“If I knew then what I know now, it would be a different story.”
Woodgate has tried to draw on his own experiences since he stepped into management. “I always have in my mind that I have to speak to the injured players,” he says.
“With injured players you have to talk to them because they struggle with it. Even if it’s just a hello. A conversation about what they did last night. It makes them feel better that someone cares about them and the injury.” That’s how I look at it.”
But the experience at Middlesbrough was still a tough one. This was his youth club, the city where he was born, the team he represented several times as a player. With family around there was an intensity to the work.
“It had its challenges, no doubt,” he says.
“The social media side of it, that was tough with my family and friends reading comments about it. It’s tough. When I was fired there, it was a tough situation.
“When a manager gets fired, it’s hard. But this was my hometown club. The only thing that was good for me was that my kids weren’t in school at the time. They could have made nasty comments on the playground. I’m just speculating you never know.
“They found that situation as difficult as I did.”
Even after being sacked 38 games into the season and with Middlesbrough out of the relegation zone on goal difference, he found it impossible to eliminate.
“I tried, but you think about it all the time. I even watched the games. They were behind closed doors, but I watched the games because I wanted the guys to do well, I wanted the club All the people I worked with were still there.
“I was still in it, if you know what I mean, but not.”
Would he have done something different?
“I had a great staff. But I could have added just a little more experience to help me on the bench, because experience can’t be bought. Sometimes you need someone to talk to.”
Last year there was an opportunity to improve his coaching training and his reputation at Bournemouth, but even that experience quickly turned into something completely different.
“My plan was to stay there until the end of the season with Jason Tindall and Stephen Purches who is an incredible coach just to see how they do it and find out what I can learn from them. But Jason became fired after 48 hours.and I was actually interim manager.
“It wasn’t easy at first because I didn’t know anyone. It was a difficult situation. I didn’t know who to trust. But I met a very welcoming group of people. They didn’t have to welcome me like they did. The cooks, kitmen , medically, everyone helped.”
Woodgate was named Championship Manager of the Month for April 2021 and took Bournemouth to the play-offs where they lost to Brentford with an odd goal in five. He left last summer and has been looking for the right opportunity ever since.
“You can’t put a time limit on it. You never know. Look at Paul Ince back in the game at Reading. I think Mark Hughes was out of the game for three years. You never know. If you watch a lot of football and keep improving. But I want to get back in.”
When he does, it will be with a greater understanding of mental health challenges than ever before. “We’re a more open society now. We just want people to get help when they’re having a hard time. Whether it’s a parent or a friend, just go talk to people.
“That could really help you.
“We have to make it a priority in the game.”
Jonathan Woodgate spoke with menswear brand Original Penguin x CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) ahead of the Under the Surface podcast release
Watch the first episode of series two