Woodgate set to emerge from international wilderness
Jonathan Woodgate's wilderness years will finally reach their conclusion at Old Trafford on Wednesday with England coach Steve McClaren keeping his fingers firmly crossed that the Middlesbrough man's injury jinx does not strike again.
Three long years since he won his fifth England cap, Woodgate has finally overcome career-threatening groin and back problems and is ready resume his international career and try to fulfil the potential everyone knew he possessed during his early days at Leeds.
Rio Ferdinand was his partner in those distant days at Elland Road. And ironically, with skipper John Terry expecting to be nothing more than chief supporter given the concerns over his fitness, it will be Ferdinand who partners Woodgate in the friendly against Spain this week.
'Jonathan Woodgate has a very good chance of playing,' said McClaren.
'There are some players you bring into a squad because you want to see them train and others because you want to see them play. Jonathan falls into the latter category.
'He has a proven pedigree at international level and I wanted to get him involved again and after three years in the wilderness, I am delighted to have him back.'
It is a measure of how much time has passed since Woodgate last turned out for his country that Darius Vassell, Emile Heskey and David Thompson were all team-mates in a 1-0 defeat by Sweden in Gothenburg.
Since then, Woodgate's career has taken him to Newcastle, Real Madrid and now McClaren's former club Middlesbrough where, under the guidance of Gareth Southgate, the 27-year-old has prospered.
'It was a great decision of Jonathan's to come back to the Premiership and join Middlesbrough,' said McClaren.
'He offers us something different because he can bring the ball out of defence and create, which is what you need at international level.'
Amazingly, Woodgate's exile is not the longest among the 28-man group McClaren announced yesterday.
June 2003 marks the last time Gareth Barry played for England and although Wayne Bridge is earmarked for the left-back slot vacated by unfortunate injury victim Ashley Cole, if the Aston Villa man does make it onto the pitch, he will create some kind of record in winning nine caps, yet playing for a fifth different coach.
Kevin Keegan, Howard Wilkinson, Peter Taylor and Sven-Goran Eriksson have all taken a chance on Barry at one stage or another, although the suggestion from McClaren is the 25-year-old might hang around slightly longer this time.
'As everyone is aware, there is a dearth of quality left-sided players in England,' said McClaren.
'Gareth has been Aston Villa's best player this season. He has taken on the captaincy and with it has come a series of mature performance that have warranted him coming back into the squad.'
McClaren confirmed Steven Gerrard will captain England this week if, as expected, Terry plays no part.
For all the vicious personal criticism from Massimo Maccarone, it is a measure of the team spirit McClaren has fostered that Terry and Owen Hargreaves both requested to be part of the squad even though they will not play.
Joey Barton can certainly expect to be at the brunt of some jovial banter over his well-publicised criticisms of his new team-mates, although McClaren does not believe the abuse will go beyond acceptable boundaries.
'I hope there is a bit of banter,' said McClaren. 'It would show we have a good dressing room to handle things in that way.
'But ultimately, they are all professionals and I do not think it is a big issue at all.'
The squad unity should certainly help when McClaren's vision of the future is really put on trial in Israel next month.
Already third in Group F, defeat in Tel Aviv would all but end any hope of reaching Euro 2008 and McClaren would be facing inevitable calls for his head.
However, at the moment, he remains calm and confident.
'I don't feel under pressure,' he said.
'There has been a big hangover from the World Cup, from the fans, media and players but we are finally starting to get over it.
'The calibre of players within the squad is raising the excitement again and once you get over the new year, you are into a new era.
'This is a massive year, for England, for me and the players.
'We start it on Wednesday and want to end it with qualification.
'There are a lot of big games to come, there will be ups and downs but eventually, we will get there.'