False dawn: Jonathan Woodgate's move to Tottenham Hotspurs has not gone according to plan

He has been involved in four transfers, at an average cost of more than £9m, and is an England international who has played for the world's most glamorous club, yet Jonathan Woodgate has never needed to consider building an extension to house his medals. There was one from an FA Youth Cup success with Leeds United many moons ago and then, at last, a senior trophy when a goal brushed in with his face won Tottenham the Carling Cup last year. Like his latest club, he has under-achieved, which is why there is every incentive for him, and them, to keep the trophy by beating Manchester United this afternoon.

The Spurs doctor has a part to play first. That familiar mane of hair will be nothing like sufficient to protect the ugly row of six stitches in Woodgate's forehead necessitated by crashing into teammate Vedran Corluka at Hull on Monday night. He nevertheless wears them like a badge of honour, invoking the spirit of a blood-stained Terry Butcher and the Elephant Man, and proudly conscious that it was his header which earned a victory in that game to ease the relegation pressure Tottenham should never have been feeling.

The move from his native Middlesbrough at the start of last season stemmed from a desire to move on up in the world again, after recovering fully from a torrid, injury-stricken period at Real Madrid. Finishing in the bottom half of the table, just four points above the team he had left, hardly fitted the bill.

"When you look on paper, it's been a step up but if you look at the way we've played it hasn't been much of a step up," he said. "We've got to cup finals but hopefully next year – and people always say next year – it'll have to start won't it? I'm sick of saying it. I said it last year. It's been said for many years. This is a so-called big club and we're gonna have to start pushing in the right direction."

Even the Wembley victory a year ago, all the sweeter because it came against local rivals in Chelsea and earned Woodgate the man-of-the-match award, failed to provide the push. As he admits, the effect was quite the opposite.

"It was nothing, because we didn't win hardly any games after the final. If you look at it, it was relegation form. Maybe as a group we thought that by winning the Carling Cup we were in Europe and we didn't have to push on. We were not going to get relegated, but it wasn't good enough. It shouldn't happen. We just weren't playing good football. The form wasn't good at all. We were going 1-0 up in games and teams were coming back and beating us 2-1. We needed to see games out."

Three wins in the 12 remaining league games that season had become three in 20 by the time Juande Ramos paid the penalty, prematurely or otherwise, in October. As his successor, Harry Redknapp looks one of Tottenham's wiser appointments. There is clearly mutual admiration between him and Woodgate, who knows he is one of the leaders the manager wanted more of.

"We're a bit of a nice team with a lot of really top quality players but you need the mixture right and sometimes that wasn't right. But I think the manager's got that now. It's not just about shouting, it's about leading on the pitch as well and there's a lot of leaders and you've got to do a lot of talking on the pitch as well. We've improved that."

Results, he fully admits, have not improved sufficiently to justify the notion of Tottenham as one of the top clubs in the land. "We're 15th in the league and we are there because we deserve to be there. The potential is there and we have the right manager in charge, but how long are we going to talk about potential?"

What of this afternoon's game then, in which he is likely to find himself up against Wayne Rooney?

"We play better against the better sides. United are an exceptional bunch of players. Even the young ones who come in have the winning mentality that runs right through the club. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs have been exceptional.

"They must be picking it up from them and there are none better to learn from. They have been brilliant players and they will probably win the European Cup as well." Just not, he hopes, "as well" as the Carling Cup today.

Carling Cup Final

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspurs

Wembley Stadium, 3.00,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 2.30