'You know what? It's the most peaceful thing ever' - Freddie Woodman interview
Written by Tom Easterby
Freddie Woodman has started the season in goal for Newcastle United, making his long-awaited Premier League debut earlier this month. He’s had to be patient – very patient – in recent years, but now he’s living in the moment. He met the Magpies’ official matchday programme, UNITED, for this interview, which was published inside Wednesday night's issue...
"You know what? It's the most peaceful thing ever," enthuses Freddie Woodman – goalkeeper and, as it turns out, keen angler – at the outset of a breathless interview. "Everyone says to me, 'why the hell do you go fishing? What's the point?' I didn't realise how much I liked it until I went with my cousin. I was just like, do you know what? This is just so peaceful.
"You sit there with a little cup of coffee, or a can of lager, or whatever your drink is, and just relax. If the weather is good, it's lovely, so calm. Then when your buzzer goes off – BANG! Your heart's racing. 'Bloody hell, I've got a fish on the end of here!'"
Woodman and his cousin Nathan did that a lot during what became a summer of uncertainty for the 24-year-old. He would train in the gym from 7am until 9am as he waited to hear news about his future, about where he would play in 2021/22. Then he would head to Watergate in Seaham, the Angel of the North Fishing Lakes near Chester-Le-Street or to Surrey if he was near home, his phone tucked away in his bag and his mind lost in the still waters in front of him. Other afternoons were spent go-karting, paintballing, or on long walks. "I climbed Snowdon again. I did a lot of random stuff," he says. "I have to keep myself active. I can't sit still for, like, five minutes. I'd be sitting in the house thinking, 'right, I'm bored now, what can I do next?'
"So I'd ring my cousin. 'Do you want to go fishing?' So we'd do a day fishing. Or I'd ring my mates. I got into squash, so I started playing a lot of that. I played golf. I just tried to keep busy as best I could."
Wary of football's tendency to consume and not wanting to get "bogged down" by it, he watched only snippets of EURO 2020. He visited London and took in a few sights he'd never found time to when he was growing up in the capital. But fishing for carp remained the most welcome respite. I apologise for my lack of knowledge about the sport. "I've got all the gear but I'm not the best – you won't say anything to offend me," he says, reassuringly. "My personal best is a rubbish 12lbs, which I was absolutely buzzing with. My cousin's PB is like 39lbs. You should see it. I'll text him and get a photo of him now. This thing had a belly on it! It was huge. He hooked it and he was fighting it for a long time. It's good fun."
"Then the next thing, I was making my Premier League debut for Newcastle United. That's football, isn't it? One minute you're here, one minute you're there. I've grown up with it."
Woodman is an infectious character, not lacking in confidence but unburdened by the expectation that belief can elicit. As he takes out his phone to text Nathan, he speaks of that sudden burst of excitement when the tranquillity is broken by a nibble on the line. "It's crazy. I didn't believe it. I was thinking, when I went for the first time, 'it's a bit long this, all this sitting around'. Then the buzzer went off and my cousin just hopped up. He was up and almost panicking – it was crazy. I just thought, 'yeah, this is a bit of me, this'."
That outbreak of action sounds a bit like the end of his summer; a quiet pre-season after his return from a second loan at Swansea City, backdropped by an undercurrent of rumours about his future. Then, the bang; on the opening day of the campaign, a Premier League debut. It came quickly and, considering the position he was in two months ago, was unexpected.
"I didn't know really what was going to happen," he admits. "I won’t lie. It is quite difficult. You don't know where you’re going to live, you don't know who wants you, you don't know if you're wanted. It is quite hard to deal with. But I just tried to control the things that I could control – that's going in the gym every day, making sure I was ready to come back, and letting everyone else take care of the other side of things."
He holds his thumb and index finger a centimetre apart and says he was "this close" to joining Bournemouth on loan. "Then the next thing, I was making my Premier League debut for Newcastle United. That's football, isn't it? One minute you're here, one minute you're there. I've grown up with it."
'It' is the air of unpredictability and precariousness that tends to stalk footballers through most of their careers. It's almost hereditary in the Woodman family; Freddie's father, Andy, is a former Magpies coach who made over 400 Football League appearances for almost a dozen clubs, never spending more than four years in one place.
His son has had a taste of that too. Last season brought him the Championship's golden glove award at Swansea, the fifth club Woodman has spent time on loan at. "It's like going to school for the first time. You're meeting new people, you have to try to build relationships with them, and then you've got the pressure of, 'oh, he's come from a Premier League club, he's got to do well'. You're moving house, you're getting used to new surroundings.
"The football club I was signing for, Swansea, made it so easy for me. They took my mind off everything and I was able to just play. I think I signed for Swansea on a Friday and I played my first game in the Championship on the Saturday. I wouldn't have been able to play well if Swansea City didn't make it easy for me."
His half-season at Aberdeen in 2018 was not as enjoyable. "I felt like I was at the end of the earth. I never really went home, I was basically living in a shed, which wasn't that good," he laughs. "Some places you go, you just don’t vibe there. I can't explain it, it just doesn't happen. But for example, I go to Kilmarnock with Sean Longstaff (in 2017) who's one of my best mates, and I'm going with him so it's sweet – it was one of the best experiences of my life that was, living with Sean. All these loans, they've given me different experiences – forget about football, they've given me life experiences."
Woodman celebrates during his second loan at Swansea City in 2020/21
Woodman has spoken in previous interviews about being teased by teammates. He doesn't want the tag of being the 'youngest journeyman ever' but his travels accelerated his growth. He remembers walking around Kilmarnock and being recognised. "It's an ego thing – you're like, 'do you know what? I like this. I like being number one, I like people recognising me a little bit'. It's nice. That was probably my first experience of that."
Having been handed more responsibility, he felt himself grow in stature while out on loan as the realities of goalkeeping – a "weird old position" – took a physical as well as a mental toll. Rob Elliot, the ex-United and current Watford stopper, once said he would leave the field with splitting headaches after playing in goal, such was the level of concentration required. "He hit the nail on the head," nods Woodman. "You do get a headache, and I get a sore throat, shouting all the time. I have to nail like five Strepsils after."
Is it fair to say, having waited so long for a top flight debut, that he has had to learn the virtue of patience? "Yeah, it is. When I was younger, I thought, 'I’ll play in the Premier League when I'm 18, it'll be sweet'. It don't really work like that. You've got to build experiences. You can't just walk into places and think you're going to go and play. You have to really perform every single day.
"That’s something I've tried to do over the last two years, every time I step on the pitch – just try and perform the best I can. If I play well, brilliant. If I make a mistake, so what? Just get on with it, and try and keep the ball out the goal as best you can."
The teenage Woodman was in a hurry and mindful of those, like his own dad, who had long careers without ever playing in the Premier League. He wondered, at times, if he would ever manage it. "I used to ask it, but did I really believe it? Maybe I did a little bit, maybe I didn’t. For it to happen is wicked."
The 4-2 defeat to West Ham was, amid all the incertitude and questions about his future, the day he’d had one eye on since he signed from Crystal Palace in 2013. "It pretty much summed up being a goalkeeper as well. You can make good saves, save a penalty," as he did, from Michail Antonio, "but concede four. But it's just football, isn't it? These things happen. It's a day that I'll remember. It's a day I'll be able to tell the grandkids about."
His parents were both at St. James' Park to see it. "It was my dad's birthday the day before. He was hungover from his birthday. I think the story goes that he went to sleep at 4am, and woke up at 7am to get a train from London to Newcastle. Rumour has it that he was still drunk," he laughs. "They were super proud. My dad said he was a bit tearful, because he never got to play in the Premier League. It was something he wanted to do since he was a boy. He said, 'you've been able to do something I've never been able to do, so you have to cherish that'. It was quite nice to hear those words from him, because he's always joking or being a bit of a doughnut. It was quite nice for him to be a bit vulnerable."
The 24-year-old made his Premier League debut against West Ham on the opening day of the season. "It's a day that I'll remember. It's a day I'll be able to tell the grandkids about."
Woodman’s mum, Anna, went to every one of her son's 52 games for Swansea last term. His tone, so jovial throughout with that broad London accent, softens a little as he speaks about her. "I haven't actually told my mum this, but we played Preston away in my first season at Swansea. It was horrible, windy, cold – just a horrible day," he says. "I was carrying a bit of an injury, I was feeling sorry for myself during the warm up. Just not in a good place.
"I saw mum sitting in the away end watching me warm up. She'd come on her own and I could see she was freezing. I was thinking, 'bloody hell, I can't let her down now. It doesn't matter how bad I'm feeling. My mum's come to Preston away, there's 3,000 fans, it's ******* with rain, I have to do it for her. We ended up winning 1-0 and I had a really good game."
Will she be on the road with Newcastle supporters this season? "I did say to her, 'maybe you should just come to the home games because the away days, they’re a bit rowdy!'" he smiles. "'You need to get ready for those!'"
Strangely, the last few weeks have brought an uneasy kind of semi-security for Woodman; while Martin Dúbravka is recovering from injury and Karl Darlow is working his way back after suffering from COVID, the number one spot is his. A couple of months ago, upon his return to Tyneside, he rented a place to live, unsure of how many weeks he’d need it for. He's still there. "Like we said about coming to new places and that, because I'd been away from Newcastle for like two years, I've come back and everything's different. It took me a bit of time. The first week I was like, 'you can’t park on Grey Street anymore? What's that about?'
"I'd go to my favourite coffee shop from two years ago. Shut. What? What's going on here? Then I'd go to the sushi place that I used to go to. Shut." He walked back to his car and found a parking ticket taped to the windscreen. "The first day I went out, I was thinking, 'this is a torrid day'."
Woodman, however obsessed he may be with self-improvement, is enveloped by his profession but you get the sense he may not want to be defined by it. We speak about Afghanistan, about books, and about the rather primitive idea that being aloof to the world’s worries is a good way to be. "They do say, in all these books, that you shouldn't read the news and shouldn't listen to it, because it does get you down," he adds. "I flip it the other way. I think, 'how lucky am I?' I'm not clinging to a plane, trying to break free."
There is a certain degree of scrutiny that he will have to get used to as a Premier League goalkeeper. The glare is greater than it ever was when he first noticed it walking down the street in Kilmarnock. Woodman explains that he has an electric car now and giggles as he begins another tale. "There's a really good charging point in town, so I charge my car up there. I've got an electric scooter in the back of the car. What I do is charge it, get on the electric scooter and go to get a coffee quickly.
"So I've got on the scooter, I'm going down past where the Sandman Signature hotel is, and I've gone past these builders. One of them turns to his mate, in his Newcastle accent – I heard him as I went past – and goes, '**** me man, that's Freddie Woodman, like' as I flew past him on my scooter!"
The next minute is spent in fits of laughter at Woodman's Geordie impression. He is a young man entering a period he spent most of his life preparing for, conscious of his profession’s transient nature and of the need to live in the moment. "It's a good way of living," he shrugs. "When I go to sleep, it's a new day. Whatever's happened on the last day just rolls on, you build momentum. It's probably the first time I've allowed myself to live like this, but if I look too far into the future, I don't know what will happen.
He takes out his phone to see if Nathan has replied. The photo of the fish hasn't arrived yet. "I'll send it on to you," he says, as he gets up to leave. It must have been some catch.