JONATHAN WOODGATE was last night on the verge of completing his £9m move to Newcastle United that pushed Terry Venables to the brink of resigning as Leeds United manager.

As Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd was rewarded for his dogged persistence of the Leeds defender, Peter Ridsdale was begging Venables not to walk out on the club after his Plc board overruled him and cashed in on one of their most prized assets.

Leeds chairman Ridsdale pleaded for patience as he faced a fans' backlash yesterday evening after the Elland Road club bowed to their chronic financial problems and allowed 23-year-old Woodgate to head to St James' Park.

But while Leeds mourned the England international's departure, Newcastle were celebrating a major transfer coup, just a day after they moved to second place in the Premiership.

Woodgate, born in Middlesbrough, is expected to clinch personal terms and put pen to paper on a five-year contract today, even though his thigh injury will preclude him from being involved in Newcastle's title challenge until the end of next month.

Woodgate is also ineligible from Newcastle's Champions League campaign after playing for Leeds in the UEFA Cup earlier this season.

However, that did not reduce the sense of delight felt on Tyneside last night as they celebrated his capture.

Shepherd said: "He's a current England international and a North-East boy who understands Newcastle and the passion of the club.

"It could be one of the biggest signings in Newcastle's history.

"He's only 23 and he's got a long way to go. He's got all the ingredients to be a top international.

"It's been an awkward deal. It's obviously a difficult time for Leeds at the moment and I have to thank them for their co-operation."

Woodgate made just 36 appearances for Leeds in the last two seasons, but he has been back to his best during the current campaign.

His inactivity in the past two campaigns came during his protracted court case, which ended in December 2001 with him being convicted of affray and sentenced to 100 hours' community service.

But he is now showing why he was given his England debut as a 19-year-old in June 1999 after playing in just 25 Premiership games.

Newcastle have conceded 24 goals away from home in the League this season - the worst top-flight record behind West Ham United.

However, they have kept three clean sheets in a row and are second in the Premiership, a point ahead of Manchester United.

Woodgate was part of the crop of Leeds Youth team that also spawned Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Paul Robinson.

He made his Leeds debut while David O'Leary was the club's caretaker-manager in October 1998 but quickly blossomed into a top-class defender.

His departure comes in the wake of Robbie Fowler's £6m move to Manchester City, and shortly after Leeds - who reported £77m debts in June 2002 - offloaded Olivier Dacourt and Lee Bowyer during the current transfer window.

Venables told Ridsdale yesterday that he would take charge of training this morning and remain as manager for tomorrow's Premiership trip to Everton.

When he was asked if he would stay on at Leeds as he left the club's Thorp Arch training complex yesterday, Venables replied: "There's a press conference tomorrow."

As Leeds supporters protested at Elland Road last night and placed a "For Sale" sign on the Billy Bremner statue outside the stadium, Ridsdale promised to reveal all today.

He said yesterday: "I will be able to say exactly what the facts are tomorrow. I know how the fans are feeling but I'm paid to look after the shareholders and the financial side of the club, which I'm doing to the best of my ability.

"It's easy when it's good, but it's not easy when you're going through bad times.

"I have a responsibility to the supporters and it's a case of getting the right balance.

"If I get the balance right, hopefully I'll be here in the future."

But Leeds supporters were on the verge of mutiny last night after seeing one of their favourite players head to Newcastle.

Simon Jose, of the Leeds United Independent Fans' Association, said: "I can't believe the board are this stupid. I don't think they really know just how angry we are. A lot of emails sent to us talk about the gross incompetence of the board and express their disbelief at what's happening at our once great club."

Ridsdale added: ''Terry Venables did not want to sell Jonathan Woodgate and I respect that and I hope he stays.

''If he does I will admire him for it because he is a very, very good manager who the players love.

''I sincerely hoped we wouldn't get a bid for Jonathan, in which case we wouldn't have this issue, but the minute that bid came in writing - of this magnitude - I was duty bound to consider it, which is what we've done.

''I have the utmost respect for Terry for standing up and saying what he wants to say, that he didn't want to sell. I hope he and I will sitting shoulder to shoulder looking to the future of Leeds United Football Club. I sincerely believe he will stay.

''Since Terry joined we've had a very difficult time. We had to go through a position where we had to regroup. We'd had three or four years of spending money we were enjoying from Champions League success and from the fact we were able to get the £60million bond (secured against future gate receipts).

''We are now going through a period few football managers would enjoy where we are having to rein in and bring cash in. That's not the easiest time.

''I admire and respect the fact that Terry is with us, has put up with some very difficult times.''

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