For supporters of Tottenham and England, the last few years have really offered a 'what could have been', with two of the most gifted central defenders the club and country have ever seen hampered by a series of injuries. James Goyder looks at two fragile talents.
If Harry Redknapp’s centre backs were cars he would probably be sending at least one of them for scrap. Fortunately, modern science seems to be developing at a sufficiently slow rate to spare the Spurs manager this particular dilemma.
Jonathan Woodgate and Ledley King are both world-class centre backs who should be leading the queue to take over from John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. If Woodgate and King could manage more than about half a Premiership season between them defenders like Matthew Upson and Gary Cahill wouldn’t get an international look in.
Injuries have not just blighted the careers of Woodgate and King, they have encapsulated them. Missing the odd game due to a lack of fitness is part and parcel of footballing life and some players are less fortunate than others. When it comes to having bad luck with injuries only Owen Hargreaves can hold a candle to Woodgate and King in the Premiership at present.
Tottenham cannot help having King on the payroll. He came up through the ranks at White Hart Lane and established himself as a mainstay in the Tottenham side, also excelling for England in the absence of the forgetful Rio Ferdinand.
Unfortunately it soon emerged that King’s right knee could simply no longer withstand the rigours of regular professional football. It is a testament to how highly King is regarded in the game that Fabio Capello was willing to risk incurring the wrath of Redknapp to take him South Africa as part of the England squad this summer.
Tottenham are basically stuck with him. On the one hand, King is as good as almost any other centre back in the world on his day. On the other, he can only play every other game at best and no other team is ever going to risk investing money in signing him on this basis.
King, who is nominally the club captain, signed a contract in May which guarantees he will remain on the Tottenham payroll for at least another two seasons. Although the exact details of the contract are unknown, his level of remuneration is probably closely connected to the number of games he plays. It is still an admirable show of loyalty by the club to its longest serving player and represents something of a gamble.
A team can just about get away with having one key squad member who is unlikely to be able to play on a regular basis. The problem for Tottenham is that they have two such players and they both play in the same position. While King was thrust upon the club the Woodgate problem is entirely of their own making.
Despite Woodgate’s well documented lack of fitness a series of clubs have somehow been persuaded to part with large sums of cash in return for his occasional services. The only question marks over his £9 million transfer from Leeds United to Newcastle United surrounded an alleged propensity for being involved in late night altercations of a racial nature. By the time Real Madrid came in offering 13 million, the then Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd was willing to bite their hand off for a defender whose appearances were becoming increasingly intermittent.
As is traditionally the case at the club in pre season, Real Madrid were between managers but coach Hector Camacho supposedly pushed through this particular transfer. The move was greeted with surprise by the British media, ‘astonishment’ was the word The Independent used. No-one was questioning Woodgate’s ability but at the time he had not played for four months due to a thigh injury.
If Camacho’s argument to the notoriously ruthless Real Madrid directors was, ‘once he gets fit he will be a great player’ he was ultimately proved right. Woodgate would go on to establish himself as a vital member of the Real Madrid defence but not before he had spent over 12 months on the sidelines. The thigh injury which Woodgate had been carrying when Newcastle United offloaded him to the Spanish side ruled him out of an entire season.
Despite scoring an own goal and being sent off on his Real Madrid debut in September 2005, a year after the initial transfer, Woodgate actually proved something of a success at the Bernabau. One Spanish newspaper even described him as having ‘become Madrid's true leader’.
There are absolutely no prizes for guessing what happened next, although if there were they would be awarded for answers containing the word ‘injury’. This one necessitated back surgery ruling Woodgate out of the 2006 World Cup and effectively ending his Real Madrid career.
Nothing signals a tacit admission of failure quite like the loaning out of a multi million pound signing. In August 2006 Woodgate was loaned back to his hometown club Middlesbrough. He would later be named the worst signing of the 21st century by a Spanish newspaper.
Woodgate remained sufficiently fit to persuade Middlesbrough to part with the comparatively modest sum of £7 million for his services. A relatively injury free season and a half lulled Tottenham manager Juande Ramos into a sufficient state of security to offer another £7 million for Woodgate in January 2008
Ramos did not exactly establish a reputation as the shrewdest of transfer market operators in his time at Tottenham. He presided over the departure of Jermain Defoe, a mistake his successor would eventually rectify, as well as the addition to the payroll of players of the caliber of Gilberto Melo, Chris Gunther and David Bentley. Although Ramos will forever be remembered as the man who sold Defoe for £6 million, signed Bentley for £15 million and took Tottenham to the brink of relegation Woodgate might well have been his most expensive mistake.
Woodgate appeared 12 times in the 2008/09 campaign at Tottenham after only arriving in January. He managed a highly respectable 34 appearances in his first full season the following year, a personal best. Since then it has all gone wrong for Woodgate in a way which everyone, with the possible exception of Ramos, could probably have predicted.
A groin injury restricted him to a total of three appearances in all competitions last season. There is little light at the end of the tunnel for Woodgate, who probably earns at least £2 million a year. He is nowhere near a comeback with even his manager admitting that the injury is potentially career threatening.
Most managers plan for the contingency of an injury crisis. For Redknapp it is a matter if absolute certainty that his two best centre backs will be missing more often than not. His answer seems to be to stockpile defenders but even this doesn’t seem to be working. At the time of writing William Gallas, Younes Kaboul and Michael Dawson are all on the injury list meaning that the club currently have five injured centre backs in the squad, surely a Premier League record.
The absence of Woodgate and King is hardly unexpected. For Redknapp to find himself deprived of the services of three of his fully functional centre backs at the same time is adding insult to, well, injury.
Redknapp is a shrewd transfer market operator who has always been renowned, much to his own annoyance, as a bit of a wheeler dealer. He has limited room for manouvre here. Tottenham already have six specialist centre backs in the squad of 23, they can hardly afford to accommodate a seventh.
Most Premiership sides go with four centre backs, presumably on the basis that at least half of them are going to be fit for any given game. When Redknapp decided to sign a sixth, Gallas, in August he couldn’t possible have imagined that less than two month into the season he would be forced to use Tom Huddlestone as a makeshift defender because Sebastian Bassong was his only fit centre back.
The good news for Redknapp is that his Tottenham team have made a solid start to the season. The bad news is that his two best centre backs can barely manage half a season between them. With Tottenham looking to repeat last year’s forth placed finish at the expense of Manchester City and qualify from one of the toughest groups in Champion’s League history the last thing Redknapp needs is an early season injury crisis.
With Rafael Van der Vaart having settled seamlessly into life at White Hart Lane the Tottenham attack is close to firing on all cylinders, even without the injured Jermain Defoe. The defensive situation remains a serious concern and Redknapp will be hoping his rapidly expanding collection of centre backs can start spending more time on the pitch and less on the treatment table.
At least the likes of Gallas, Kaboul, Dawson and King will have plenty of time to bond on the treatment table and should all be on first name terms by the time they return to fitness. Woodgate, on the other hand, will probably need introducing to a few of his new colleagues if he ever returns from injury.
James is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. You can follow him on Twitter here.