Jonathan Woodgate has admitted he lost confidence as a person when “his dream job” as Middlesbrough turned into a nightmare and he was labelled “thick” on social media platforms. The Nunthorpe-born, 42-year-old has also claimed the Boro hierarchy went back on their word when they sacked him in June 2020 when the club were fighting against relegation to League One.
Former England defender Woodgate was speaking on the Original Penguin X Campaign Against Living Miserably Under The Surface podcast, where he opened up on how his mental health was impacted by football and the times at the Riverside when he stayed on the pitch whilst injured to avoid the humiliation of limping out of another game. Clearly affected by online trolls during his spell in the Boro dugout, Woodgate has admitted subsequent work in the media has helped in his fight to become a more eloquent communicator on the game and, recalling the difficult start to his managerial career on Teesside, he said: “Boro was my dream job.
“I was meant to be going the Liverpool v Spurs Champions League final, but I had to do the interview so my missus went with my son. Who is going to turn down their dream job with their home-town club? But it didn’t work out. I got a lot of abuse, from the fans.
“I’m not intellectually clever, quite basic, and I get called a hell of a lot of names – he’s thick, he can’t talk properly. I lost a bit of confidence to be honest with you just as a person.
“What’s helped has been doing a lot of radio work for 5Live, and I started to get a bit of confidence back. It was tough. If you get a lot of abuse online – if you shoot so much mud, some of it sticks.”
In an honest and powerful interview, Woodgate also gave his version of the events that led to his dismissal in June 2020, with the team having only won nine of their opening 38 Championship contests. He was sacked just one game after the second-tier programme restarted following the three-and-a-half month break due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Neil Warnock was subsequently announced as his replacement on the same day and the lifelong Boro fan revealed: “I remember we played Charlton and we won 1-0.
“Previously I had a meeting with the chairman, my staff and the chief exec and he said ‘I’ve got one thing to say to you Jonathan – if we get relegated, you’re getting us up and, if we stay in the league, we are going to rebuild. There are seven players out of contract and you’re going to rebuild it’.
“Perfect. So we went into Covid, come out of Covid and got beaten by Swansea 3-0 and, two days later, I’m sacked.
“It was a really difficult moment. The team I supported as a kid, played for and then I was the manager, and it was the perfect job.
“Telling my kids was the hardest thing, because my son just burst out crying because he is a Boro fan. That was really, really tough. I was embarrassed as well. Embarrassed that I’d lost my job so early on in my management career.
“If your first job doesn’t go to plan, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to get a second one. Luckily enough I did, but it’s that feeling of not being able to do the job that you know you could have done. Looking at all the players I was going to sign, trying to build for next season with seven players out of contract, the chairman said he was going to back me in the summer. I was absolutely gutted.
“It was a drive home and I can’t remember getting home. I cannot remember getting home. I was on autopilot thinking ‘what has happened here’. It was a blessing in disguise that it was Covid at the time and my son wasn’t at school.
“I’d have been terrified of him going to school at the time and getting bullied or whatever. Your dad’s this, your dad’s that, because all the kids are Boro fans and kids can be quite cruel so, quite fortunately, he was off school at the time.”
Woodgate went on to take over as Bournemouth boss in February 2021 and, having won the Championship’s April Manager of the Month award, he guided the Cherries into the play-offs. But, following a narrow, two-legged 3-2 defeat to eventually-promoted Brentford, he also found himself out of a job a second time with the south-coast club installing Scott Parker in the Vitality Stadium dugout for last season.
Bouts of homesickness, meanwhile, plagued Woodgate’s spell on the south coast and he also confessed that he felt uncomfortable about the circumstances in which he replaced Jason Tindall as manager. “I didn’t enjoy managing Bournemouth at the start because Jason Tindall brought me down and, two days later, he got sacked and I’m asked to step in,” he explained.
“I didn’t enjoy that at all and it was difficult. I didn’t know any of the staff, so I had to get to know them and their personalities, so that was interesting but I really enjoyed it towards the end.
“My family came down for the first six weeks, but, then, I found it really difficult being away from my kids and my wife. My son would have been eight and my daughter four, and I want to spend time with my family, not away all the time, and I really struggled with that.
“When I had a day off, I’d drive home, because I missed them that much and I love being with my kids. After a game on a Saturday, I’d drive home to Middlesbrough in the evening, spend all day Sunday with them and then drive back.”
Understandably frustrated by a injury-plagued playing career, meanwhile, that saw him only start 299 league games during an 18-year career, Woodgate made specific mention of the second spell at his home-town team, where he was only able to kick off 53 league contests in four years. He said: “Most of the games I played with an injury.
“I’d try and trick my mind if I felt my hamstring in training, and tell myself I didn’t feel that to try and play. I wanted to stay on.
“At Middlesbrough, during Ben Gibson’s debut, I said to him, ‘You’re going to have to cover me here’ as I’d pulled my calf, but I wanted to stay on until half-time. I couldn’t handle the fans’ groans of ‘not again’, and walking off to that is not a nice feeling. It was the walk of shame. You come off and you just want the ground to swallow you up.”
Admitting his experiences in football took their toll on his mental health, Woodgate added that he became more understanding of such issues as a manager. “I didn’t really tell people when I was going through a difficult time,” he recalled.
“I’m one of those people who, when they were struggling, didn’t really tell anyone and I’d just try to deal with it myself. Maybe that’s a blind spot of mine, and I do need to open up when I’m struggling, because you do need to talk about it.
“I didn’t hear mental health spoken about until three years ago. With players, it was you were either feeling sad or happy, but now it’s big. I always say to my players, my door is always open. Anything you need or want from me as a manger – come and see me.
“Whether it’s football-related or personal and home-life stuff, come and see me. I’ve got experience in different things and you can talk to me. I’m not going to judge but always try and help you.”