THEY say, ‘Never meet your heroes’. As Jonathan Woodgate can attest, it’s better to be managed by them instead.

Back in the mid-1980s, as a wide-eyed Primary School pupil standing on the terraces at Ayresome Park, Woodgate adored Middlesbrough’s two central defenders. On the playground, he would pretend to be Gary Pallister, all poise and polish. But his first footballing love was the person playing alongside Pallister at centre-half.

“When I used to go to Ayresome Park, it was Mogga (Tony Mowbray) and Gary Pallister at the back. Pallister was a big Rolls-Royce of a defender, wasn’t he? But Mogga was the organiser and the leader of that team.

“He scored some important headers for the club, I remember how he used to bend down from corners and then go and really attack the ball. When he used to run out from the tunnel, he used to boot those Mitre balls as high as he could.

“Remember at Ayresome Park? Those shiny legs, those big white shorts pulled right up, and those tints in the hair. I’ve got a picture with him actually, I’ll have to dig it out. It was when I played for Nunthorpe, and he just came over one day and had his picture taken with us. I’ve still got it at home.”

Fast forward three decades, and Mowbray was back with Middlesbrough, this time as their manager. Woodgate had travelled round the world at that stage, playing for Tottenham and Real Madrid as well as representing his country, but he too had decided to come home.

For a brief spell, Woodgate got the chance to play for his idol. It was not an easy time for either – Woodgate was coming to the end of a playing career that was ravaged by injury, Mowbray was trying to rebuild Middlesbrough in the Championship at a time when the wage bill was being slashed – but both revelled in the opportunity to pick each other’s brain.

They will be reunited this afternoon, when Woodgate’s Middlesbrough take on Mowbray’s Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park, and the respect between the duo is mutual. Mowbray was always confident Woodgate would head into management, and is adamant he will be a big success; Woodgate regards Mowbray as one of Middlesbrough’s greatest-ever servants.

“He’s been a hero at this football club,” said Boro’s current head coach. “Even when he came back as a manager and didn’t have the results towards the latter spells, the fans were still with him and the fans still love him to this day.

“That’s unusual. Sometimes, you’re loved as a player but hated as a manager. Well, with Tony Mowbray, he’s loved regardless. It was a difficult job for him when he came back here, with the money situation and stuff, and he had to free a lot up. But I remember we were top at Christmas, and then it just fell off from there.”

By the time he signed a three-year contract with Middlesbrough in 2012, Woodgate had spent almost a decade-and-a-half playing at the highest level of the game.

Yet Mowbray would still invite him into his office to pore over his performances, desperate to make tweaks in an attempt to improve his fellow defender’s displays.

That love for the game has stuck with Woodgate, and while he has played for some fantastic managers during his career – Sir Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Harry Redknapp – his time working with Mowbray has left an especially strong impression.

“He loved it,” said Woodgate. “It wasn’t just about me, it was about the team and what we could do with this certain player, or what would you do in this area, or should he be doing this? He was asking me questions and stuff, really trying to help me to analyse an opposition team.

“I used to love it. I used to love going in and talking football with him, Mark Venus, Proc (Mark Proctor) and Stephen Pears. Who wouldn’t love the chance to do that?”