Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer planned to talk on the telephone during the 48 hours preceding Saturday’s match at The Valley.
In one sense there is nothing unexpected about that – the former Leeds United teammates turned fledgling Championship managers are good friends and in frequent contact – but it is still a little unusual for two managers locked in a relegation skirmish to be in touch so close to such a potentially season-defining fixture.
Given that Woodgate’s Middlesbrough sit 22nd in the table, one point in arrears of Bowyer’s 20th-placed Charlton, such private relationships would normally be temporarily suspended. The pair’s bond though is so unique they can compartmentalise a mutual desperation to consign the other to defeat, separating it from a friendship forged while they did their extremely painful growing up in public.
Contrary to widespread expectation, and despite recent results, Woodgate and Bowyer have matured into two impressive coaches displaying considerable promise in difficult contexts. Yet if they have earned the right to regard the past as a foreign country where they once did things very differently, their names will always be synonymous with a night out in Leeds that, two decades ago, went horribly wrong.
At Rockliffe, Middlesbrough’s tranquil training ground set amid undulating parkland in an attractive village south of Darlington, Woodgate is braced for the question. “It was 20 years ago,” he says, looking the reporter straight in the eye. “We all make mistakes. I’d rather focus on the future.”
It is indeed almost exactly 20 years since Sarfraz Najeib, an Asian student, was chased from the Majestyk nightclub and seriously injured after being badly beaten by a group of drunken young men. Woodgate and Bowyer were arrested and faced two crown court trials, the second of which saw Bowyer acquitted of all charges, Woodgate cleared of GBH but convicted of affray and his friend Paul Clifford sentenced to six years in prison. During months of incessant scrutiny Woodgate looked haunted and lost three stone but Bowyer played the best football of his career, briefly becoming one of the Premier League’s outstanding midfielders.
Woodgate, now 40, recovered to become one of Europe’s finest, if most injury-prone, centre-halves, gracing Newcastle, Tottenham and Real Madrid with his defensive elegance. “I still speak regularly to Lee,” he says. “We’re friends. We learned a lot of lessons together.”
A strong and warm communicator who wants to know what is going on in the lives of Middlesbrough’s most junior employees and insists on interviewing all potential signings face to face, Woodgate inherited a poisoned chalice at his hometown club.
An amalgam of poor past recruitment and the need to slash a high wage bill has left him without money to spend and over-reliant on youth-team graduates. There have been promising spells of pleasing football which hint at a brighter future and Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner, has said he remains “100%” behind him but the team, although they rarely lose by more than a goal, are alarmingly inconsistent and Woodgate refuses to make excuses.
“I’m not going to blame other people,” he says. “I look at myself. I’m not going to look at what other managers before me did in certain transfer windows. I haven’t had the money and others have had money. No problem, that’s football. I want to take the club forward and build an exciting team. We’ve shown it at times but we need consistency.”
After winning promotion last season this campaign was always going to be a struggle
for a Charlton side with the second tier’s lowest budget and a manager unrecognisable from the Bowyer who infamously traded blows on-pitch with his Newcastle teammate Kieron Dyer.
This week Bowyer, 43, has been in statesmanlike mode reflecting on the racial abuse directed last September at Jonathan Leko, then on loan at Charlton from West Brom, which has seen Kiko Casilla, the Leeds goalkeeper, receive an eight-game suspension.
Charlton’s manager offered Leko and his key witness Macauley Bonne unstinting support. “We don’t want racism in football and this club does a lot of community work in that area,” he says. “We’ve supported Jonathan since day one; as a group we got him through. As soon as the verdict came out I rang him, just to make sure he was OK. To have something like that hovering over you, as a young player, isn’t easy.”
Avoiding relegation matters immensely but, like Woodgate, Bowyer knows some things are even more important.