Stoke’s signing of Woodgate could prove a gamble worth taking

Multi-million pound transfer deals involving Luka Modric, Wesley Sneijder, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have dominated the transfer gossip columns this summer, but the free transfer move of a player who once commanded that sort of astronomical fee has gone largely unnoticed. Yet Stoke City’s signing of Jonathan Woodgate could be one of the most intriguing moves of the transfer window.

Woodgate, once a £9m signing for Newcastle United – and a £13.4m buy for Real Madrid – quietly left Tottenham Hotspur in June after an injury-ravaged three years in London. Rejecting a pay-as-you-play deal to stay at White Hart Lane, the 31-year-old signed a similarly structured contract with Stoke in an effort to re-launch a career that came to an abrupt halt in 2009-10. Prior to that season, Woodgate had made 61 appearances for Tottenham after moving from Middlesbrough in January 2008, but a groin injury restricted the centre-back to just three appearances as Spurs finished fourth a year later, and just one brief substitute appearance in the last campaign – a second-half replacement for Vedran Corluka against Milan in the Champions League.

Woodgate’s inclusion in Spurs’ Champions League squad last season – and Harry Redknapp’s decision to offer Woodgate a new contract – suggests Redknapp believed the player still had something to offer. Stoke boss Tony Pulis evidently agrees. Pulis said: “The lad is a top-class player. He has had his injury troubles but we believe that if his fitness is managed properly he will play games for us.” With two experienced Premier League managers backing Woodgate to shake his injury problems once and for all, the defender can certainly count on strong support from two shrewd judges of a player’s character.

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Should Woodgate find some semblance of fitness in the coming season – playing 20 games would be a monumental achievement given his lack of recent action – Stoke’s gamble will have been worthwhile, and the Potters would have an international calibre defender on their books. The way in which Woodgate’s contract is reportedly set-up, with an automatic 12-month extension after a certain number of games, suggests both player and club are confident about their future relationship but cautious of the player’s past too. If Woodgate does reach the landmark to trigger an extension he will have justified Pulis’ faith and be rewarded with another year’s commitment, but if the injuries return, the pay-as-you-play aspect means Stoke have made little financial risk.

With one England-class defender on their books already in Ryan Shawcross, potentially picking up a second for free is a risk worth taking for Stoke. A fit Woodgate would, on paper, compliment Shawcross – Woodgate the elegance to Shawcross’ full-blooded fortitude – and allow Robert Huth to remain at right-back, provide competition for Shawcross and the giant German or offer an in-house replacement should Shawcross be tempted away before the close of the transfer window. A former England international and once described in the Spanish press as “…Madrid’s true leader”, Woodgate could prove the smartest signing of the summer.

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