By JOE BERNSTEIN
Jonathan Woodgate is proud to be a Stoke City player, but as someone who once shared a dressing room at Real Madrid with the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Raul and David Beckham, he does not buy into the notion that the Premier League's toughest team bear comparison with Barcelona.
'We wouldn't get a kick, would we?' he says, raising his eyebrows at Gary Neville's suggestion that Stoke put opponents under pressure in much the same way as the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi.
'That is not being disrespectful to Stoke, but how would we get the ball? Teams like Barca are in a different league. They keep the ball against elite teams. Look what they did against Manchester United in the Champions League final, and United are the best in England.
'If Zidane and Roberto Carlos had come to the Britannia Stadium, I know they'd have just puffed their chests out and gone out to be the best players on the pitch. Big players have winning mentalities.'
At 31, Woodgate's horizons expanded long ago beyond the Middlesbrough suburb of Nunthorpe, where he grew up. Capped at 19, he seemed destined to become England's best centre-back since Bobby Moore until a conviction for affray while at his first club, Leeds United, was followed by a horrific injury record that cost him around three years of his footballing life.
Last year, he was told he needed a metal plate inserted in his pelvis to correct a chronic bone problem. It would have ended his career. Woodgate refused to give up, opted for different treatment and is still playing.
So it was a worldly-wise Woodgate who chatted and signed autographs for children at Langdale Primary School in the Potteries last week as part of Stoke's community work.
He credits moving to Madrid as a life-changing experience, even though his debut - an own-goal and a red card - was a personal nightmare and injuries restricted him to 10 starts in three seasons before Fabio Capello, then managing Real, sent him back to England on loan.
As one whose eight-cap international career never lived up to its promise, Woodgate is missionary like in his belief that the next generation of young English players, such as Jack Wilshere, would benefit from playing abroad.
'Madrid made me as a character and a person,' he says. 'When you're young you do some stupid things and I was no angel. But when I went to Spain it made me grow up.
'It was the best thing I ever did. I was injured a lot but I learned the language and tried to fit into the culture. It has massive benefits from a football point of view as well.
'I'd advise anyone to do it if they had the chance, including the England players. I saw first-hand what makes the really big players - that winning mentality. They just refuse to be beaten. Raul made a big impression on me, the way he trained hard every day.
'The Premier League is totally different to international football. We play one way, and they play another. We like the hustle and bustle, they are accustomed to passing the ball. Our younger players, like Jack Wilshere, are all learning but they are still playing in the Premier League. Why don't they go abroad?
'I'd love them to do that; it would be brilliant, playing in a different league, a different type of football where it's not 100 miles an hour, where players are comfortable on the ball, as you have to be at international level.
'It would benefit the England team enormously because, at the moment, we are just not good enough to win a World Cup.'
Woodgate insists blaming Capello for England's poor performance at the last World Cup finals masks a simple truth. 'Capello has taken a lot of the blame for what's happened with England, but the truth is that we're not better than Spain, or Germany, or France, or Brazil or Argentina,' he says.
'It's hard to ask our players to go from one style to another and I just don't think we're good enough, basically. That includes me, by the way, and I'm not an international any more.'
Woodgate can speak with the candour of a player for whom every match, including Sunday's Premier League game for Stoke at Sunderland, is a bonus.
Less than 12 months ago, he knew his career was in serious trouble when a surgeon said he needed the same treatment as Carlo Cudicini, the Tottenham and former Chelsea goalkeeper who had smashed his pelvis in a motorbike accident.
According to the specialist, Woodgate's chronic injury problems stemmed from an unstable pelvis. The only solution was to insert a metal plate across the joint that holds it together.
Woodgate sought a second and third opinion, but they said the same thing. When specialist No 3 delivered his gloomy verdict in Swansea, even Woodgate's natural optimism took a massive hit. 'I did think to myself my career could be over,' he admits, voice dropping to a near-whisper.
'When you see three pelvic surgeons and they say the same thing, all you can think is, "Oh my goodness, is this it?". 'I remember driving back home to Middlesbrough after my visit to Swansea, hardly saying a word to the driver. My head was all over the place.
'By that time, I'd also been to Australia for an operation on my adductor muscle, and that hadn't got me back playing either.'
He adds: 'I knew if I had the plate installed, that was me finished. I would have struggled to play again. No outfield player has managed to carry on with a pelvic plate - you need to do too much twisting and running.
'So, in the end, I just thought, "I'm not getting that done". 'I looked for something else, I looked for different avenues. When you're injured, you have this almost illogical thought that "something will happen". And thankfully in my case, it did.'
Salvation finally came in the form of Tottenham's medical chief, Wayne Diesel, who sent Woodgate to a specialist in Denmark.
He was encouraged to return to London and undergo a series of injections of bisphosphonates, drugs normally used to prevent loss of bone mass.
'I had four injections, one a month,' recalls Woodgate. 'They nail you, I swear you can't move afterwards - it just screws your body up. I was warned before I had them, they'd be like having the flu for three weeks afterwards. Not nice, but it had to be done.'
At the start of 2011, Woodgate was back in full training, much to the delight of Spurs boss Harry Redknapp. Woodgate's contract with Spurs ran out in the summer but he was determined to earn a new one.
His dream was shattered at the first day of pre-season training on July 4 when Redknapp invited him to report in, but a club official intervened and refused to allow Woodgate to train.
'Harry would have kept me, definitely. He'd ring me every week, even when I was in Australia, to encourage me and say he needed me back. But I think his hands were tied,' reveals Woodgate.
'The manager told me to come in for training but as I was walking towards the dressing room to get changed, a Spurs official stopped me on the grass verge outside and said I couldn't train. I felt humiliated. We all went into a room. Harry fought my corner, he was dying for me to stay, but Spurs said they felt I wouldn't get to the top again.
'I couldn't do anything about it but go to another club and try to prove people wrong. I did worry that nobody would have me after 18 months injured, but I think Harry must have had a word with Stoke manager Tony Pulis, because they came in really quickly.'
'I wanted to play for a good club in the top flight and I remember turning out against Stoke at The Britannia Stadium. It was an atmosphere no opponent looked forward to.'
Stoke are in their fourth season in the Premier League and able to attract such players as Jermaine Pennant and Peter Crouch, who both played in the 2007 Champions League final for Liverpool.
Woodgate is determined to do his bit, too. His one-year contract, with an option for a second if he plays enough games.
'I want to play 40 games this season. Did you think I'd say 20?' he says, smiling.
'Playing more is probably better for me because training is sometimes harder than the games.
'I want to play as long as I can. I can't understand people who retire early. I bet they end up regretting it.'