IT is not the first time Jonathan Woodgate will return to Leeds United today, nor will it be the last. For the Middlesbrough head coach, every trip is just as emotional because he will never forget his time there.

That is not to say the former Whites defender will want anything other than a Boro win when he leads his hometown team back to an old home this afternoon, but he will always cherish the special times he had down there.

His reasons for joining Leeds over Middlesbrough as a teenager are well documented, because he wanted to keep playing for his Sunday league team Marton when the club he supported as a child kept asking him to play.

The frustrations Middlesbrough felt ended up leading Woodgate to trials at Manchester United and Leeds, where he would develop into one of the country’s finest defenders of his generation.

“It’s the best thing I did, move away from Middlesbrough then,” said Woodgate. “Getting away. I always say to Neil Maddison and Craig Liddle (in charge of Middlesbrough’s academy) ‘can we get some of our players out of the town, the area? Out of that hub of being with their friends day in and day out?’

“Getting away from that environment is a really good thing as a footballer, to learn from it. I was out of the way while some of my mates were out or whatever. I know I was no angel, but it was important for me and I would recommend that to any young footballer.”

Not that he felt it was that enjoyable during some of those early sessions he had. “I remember when I was training with the 18s, as a 15-year-old, we had shuttles up Beeston Hill …. oh my god,” said Woodgate.

“We used to have fast laps around the Elland Road pitch, up the steps. Paul Hart used to call me ghost …. I was knackered every time. But whatever they had us doing, we won the FA Youth Cup.”

He was handed his debut by David O’Leary as an 18-year-old in October 1998, a year Leeds went on to finish fourth. “It was unbelievable,” said Woodgate.

“We had a manager who was brave, who knew how good the players were below him. We had the likes of myself, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Harry Kewell and we bought even more younger players.

“We had Stephen McPhail, unbelievable, probably the best of everyone. We bought Robbie Keane, Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler, Mark Viduka, Michael Bridges, Olivier Dacourt, David Batty with that experience, Nigel Martyn in goal.

“We had some exceptional players, Ian Harte came through the system, Danny Mills we bought. We had Lee Bowyer as well. What a player he was. He was box-to-box. We used to room together. It was unbelievable travelling to European games, challenging for league titles. But we weren’t a great team because we didn’t win a title.”

Woodgate ended up being sold to Newcastle for £9m in January 2003 and it hurt. Leeds have taken years to recover, and ahead of today’s visit of Middlesbrough they are dreaming of the Premier League again.

“I had to leave, I had no choice,” said Woodgate. “It was either that or the club would be ******. It would have been done. I didn’t want to leave. The fans knew that.”

This afternoon Woodgate, in his first year in management, will come up against a Leeds side pushing for the title under the experienced and meticulous Marcelo Bielsa. He met the South American last season when he was given an insight into his methods.

“He handed me a big file when Leeds came to us when I met him in the coaches’ office,” said Woodgate. “It showed all the formations we played last season, the substitutes we made and changes in certain minutes for every game. He had that for every game.

“It had all the subs we made in certain minutes, times we scored goals, impacts from the bench, how does the right-back play … a lot of detail. A lot of managers will have those things, but the detail was very good. The players say he is very thorough. All managers do things like that but he gave us his.”

Leeds had to learn lessons the hard way by the length of time it has taken the club just to get themselves in a position where the top-flight is in reach again. What happened to them, he feels, can highlight why teams need to be frugal.

“They gambled to try to get to the Champions League in my view (and) we finished fourth and not third,” said Woodgate. “It’s about spending money, but it’s about getting value for a player, that’s what it’s all about, getting value for a player.

“If you see a player, what do you value him in his prime. Take a player, Ian Harte, what do you value him at? £10m. Can we get him for this (less). You don’t pay over the odds, you’ve got to get value for that player then it’s money well spent.

“You can’t compromise the football club by spending money. You can’t expect to spend money which is going to compromise the football club, that can’t happen. We need to buy astute signings a players who are value for money.”