Though Real Madrid have never been afraid to cast their nets overseas in search of talent, and the number of first-rate foreigners to have been handpicked to represent the club throughout its illustrious history stretches far into three figures, just five names belong to the exclusive club open only to Englishmen elected to don the famous white kit.
Of those five it could be argued, without many claims to the contrary, that the first four represented both their club and their country to acclaim while in the Spanish capital; to varying degrees of acclaim, certainly, but acclaim nonetheless. To the fifth, however, fate wasn’t quite so kind.
As his fellow countrymen set about swapping the permed locks and swooping flares of the psychedelic 1970s for the maligned mullets and neon windbreakers of the outrageous 1980s, London-born winger Laurie Cunningham was busy swapping the West Midlands for Madrid. Purchased for a few thousand pounds shy of a million in 1979, Cunningham – Real Madrid’s first ever English player and only the second black player to represent England at any level of professional football – bagged a brace on his debut, won the league and cup double in his first year, and deeply enamoured himself to Madridistas everywhere as his spell with Los Blancos exceeded even his most auspicious of aspirations.
After Cunningham traded Madrid for Marseille in 1984, England was forced to wait almost 16 years to see another of their famous sons lining up for the home team at the Bernabéu. The day finally arrived when Liverpudlian Steve McManaman left behind his hometown club to link up with Guus Hiddink’s ambitious Madrid squad in one of the most high-profile Bosman transfers to date. During his four year spell in Spain, McManaman made quite the impression, winning no fewer than eight trophies, lifting the La Liga and Champions League trophies twice apiece, taking the opportunity to etch his own story into the annals of club and country on both accounts.
As it happened, McManaman’s own memorable time in Madrid would come to a close just as another famous Englishman’s began. Enter the poster boy of English football, David Beckham. After many years of stunning collaboration, Manchester United’s prodigal son eventually outgrew the Premier League’s frontrunners, as his larger than life allure took him far beyond his homeland’s borders, and it made perfect sense that, despite initially being promised to their rivals Barcelona, Beckham should leave English shores for Madrid in 2003, to join fellow Galácticos Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo in the most star-studded of line-ups.
Though on-field success alluded his team for much of his time in Spain, Beckham, his renowned right foot, and his unquestionable work ethic provided plenty moments of inspiration, on the way to a solitary league title, which proved more than enough to ensure his fond remembrance by the demanding Real faithful.
Michael Owen was next to follow David Beckham in and out Real’s revolving door. Signed for just a fraction of his compatriot predecessor, expectations of Owen’s impact in Madrid were pitched significantly lower than those who came before him. However, despite finding a place in the starting line-up painfully elusive, and given the grace of just a single injury-stunted campaign in which to make his mark, Owen completed his only year in Madrid with the best goals-to-minutes-played ratio of all his teammates, meaning he returned to England on the back of a spell at Madrid that was short but still relatively sweet.
Then came the turn of Nunthorpe’s own Jonathan Woodgate to follow the sun southwards and tread the same prodigious path in 2004, whose comparatively disastrous stint in Spain would prove sufficient to make him the fifth and, to date, final Englishman to play for Real Madrid.
Perhaps it was to be prophetic that the man tasked with aiding in the construction of an unbreachable backline at the Bernabéu, having been blessed with the nickname ‘Woody’, would so quickly come to resemble a cowboy builder. But for all the furore preceding the unlikely transfer’s completion, and the swathe of regrets that later followed, there were those who believed Woody could be just what Madrid needed. After all, he had proved an overwhelming success on home soil.
Having excelled during his time in the Leeds United youth academy, Woodgate was tipped for success by every coach fortunate enough to have played a role in overseeing his progression; from those who supervised his induction following his switch from the Middlesbrough academy, aged 16, to those heralding his succession into Leeds’ first team scarcely two years later, as he graduated with honours in every sense of the phrase.
After bursting onto the scene, forcing his way into in a Leeds team already blessed with central defensive options in the form of Rio Ferdinand, Dominic Matteo and Lucas Radebe, Woodgate performed with sufficient class and maturity to register on the radars of fans following both Leeds and the England national team alike.
So much so that while much of the world’s population was busy coordinating a planet-wide relief-filled exhale as they came to realise the Y2K computer bug wasn’t quite the apocalypse in computer programming form they feared it may be, Woodgate remained blissfully unaware of any and all threats to humanity’s existence, computer-based or otherwise, instead focussing on nothing but football, enjoying life as a Leeds regular and a full England international.
And things looked to continue in much the same vein as all parties appeared content with their plotted routes being entwined with one another’s. Yet, after some 140 appearances, Woodgate’s time at Leeds drew to an abrupt and climactic close.
In more than a spot of bother financially, Leeds’ owners took the opportunity to cash in on the “jewel in their crown” in the January transfer window of 2003 as a £9 million bid from Newcastle was enough to prize Woodgate away and add a few black stripes to his previously all-white apparel.
In almost no time at all, Woodgate’s newest fans had fallen under his spell just as willingly as their Leeds contemporaries had done before them, and he continued to shine at St James’ Park. One particular defensive masterclass, at home to Marseille in 2004’s UEFA Cup semi-finals, stood out against the rest.
Having watched the lanky English centre half deploy his every defensive tack to effectively shackle an always demanding Didier Drogba, Michael Walker of the Guardian wrote of Woodgate’s pivotal role in Newcastle’s potentially vital 0-0 draw. “Laurent Robert cannot always be relied upon. Fortunately for Newcastle Jonathan Woodgate can be, and increasingly so.”
In the reverse leg, played in the south of France two weeks later, Newcastle weren’t so fortunate. The Ivorian hitman made amends, scoring an unanswered brace, and his side progressed at the Magpies’ expense. This had been made all the more possible by an unfortunate injury that had, much to Drogba’s delight, removed Woodgate from the equation and ended his season prematurely.
Unfortunately for Newcastle fans, they had already been given their last look at Woodgate in their club’s colours. The season ended without him making another appearance and before the next could start their star stopper had already set sail for foreign shores.
In the weeks leading up to the 2004/05 season, despite a generous helping of Galácticos sprinkled throughout the foremost two-thirds of the squad, Real were in dire need of defensive reinforcement. Within a week of the previous campaign ending, they had secured the signing of Roma’s Argentine wall, Walter ‘Il Muro’ Samuel, but further additions were needed.
A handful of potential recruits from across the continent had been brought into the club’s crosshairs; Milan’s Alessandro Nesta was their number one target with the likes of Internazionale’s Fabio Cannavaro and Nesta’s younger teammate Fabricio Coloccini the reported reserves. But when Madrid were rebuffed by their first two high profile targets, and their interest in the latter dissipated, their adoring gaze, and eventually their waning hopes, fell tentatively upon a signing rather less extravagant: Jonathan Woodgate.
Woodgate’s arrival in Madrid was received by a pandemic of astonishment. Those in England couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Real had seen to want to take him to Spain over any other highly-rated central defender and those awaiting his arrival in Spain echoed those very sentiments only with the added caveat of many La Liga-centric journalists barely knowing who he was.
Woodgate’s quality was rarely the cause for doubt. He was good, quite likely good enough for Real when fully fit, and many believed he would go on to show just that. He boasted some level of European pedigree, having played on the continent for both Leeds and Newcastle, and was one of the Premiership’s standout defenders. Following his departure, his then-manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson, said: “No one is pleased that he’s gone because we know what we’ve lost. At his best, he’s the best in the country.” But the fact remained: in his 18-months at Newcastle persistent injuries had limited Woodgate to just 37 appearances out of a possible 128 games.
Furthermore, it would be fair to say Woodgate’s off-field persona was hardly tailored from vintage Madrid material. While outside of football, his compatriot David Beckham was a bonafide regular in the tabloids in the way Madrid’s image-obsessed marketing team so openly encouraged, Woodgate’s only appearance in the national news for non-footballing matters was centred around his regrettable run-in with the law four years’ previous.
On two occasions, in 2000 and 2001, Woodgate had appeared in Crown Court alongside former Leeds teammate Lee Bowyer as defendants in a case brought against them following an alleged assault outside of a nightclub in Leeds in which an Asian student was bitten on the face and had suffered a broken leg, nose and cheekbone in a reported racist attack.
Following a collapse of the initial trial and a subsequent retrial, Bowyer was found not guilty of grievous bodily harm and affray while Woodgate was found guilty of the latter charge only and received 100 hours’ community service, as well as an initial three-year ban from international football imposed by the FA. Of the footballers’ two friends who were also implicated, one received an identical ruling to Woodgate while the other was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to six years in prison.
With the doubts surrounding his suitability on the field and his aptitude off it, Madrid fans were unapologetically cautious when it came to Woodgate’s impending arrival. Still, it was only right they judged him for his actions on the pitch. However, they’d be forced to wait some time for a chance to do that.
Despite somehow passing his medical without issue, Woodgate arrived in the Spanish capital still hampered by the torn thigh muscle that had curtailed his previous season with Newcastle. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez insisted “he’ll be playing within three weeks” but his hopeful declaration did nothing to miraculously cure his latest signing’s ailments as Woodgate remained banished to the sidelines for the entirety of his first season in Spain, able only to watch on as his team finished second to Barcelona in the league and end the season trophyless.
The following year brought with it a return to fitness and a belated Real Madrid bow for the Englishman. By the time the blurry apparition that was Woodgate’s debut had peaked over the horizon, Walter Samuel had long since left Madrid following a far from stellar opening campaign, returning to Italy to play for Inter, and with veteran defender Iván Helguera out injured, on 22 September 2005, 516 days after his grand unveiling, Woodgate accompanied Real Madrid youth academy graduate Francisco Pavón at the centre of defence for their team’s home game against Athletic Club as he made his long-awaited inauguration before a packed stadium desperate to see their man in action.
Sadly, Woodgate’s Real Madrid debut wasn’t to be worth the agonising wait. In fact, it could hardly have been further from it. In the opinions of many, this was the worst debut anybody in European football had ever seen.
After a low key opening 20 minutes, Woodgate was handed his first test by Bilbao’s Joseba Etxeberria. Unfortunately he missed the passing grade by some way. Etxeberria cut in from the left wing, shifted the ball onto his right foot, and arrowed a hopeful shot towards Real’s goal. Woodgate recognised the danger early, stepped inside to cover the angle, and threw himself at the speculative effort in an attempt to save Iker Casillas the bother. But the ball flicked off of Woodgate’s head, slowed not at all by the tangle of hair atop it, and his deflection sent Casillas the wrong way, leaving the ball to flash past him and into the goal.
Immediately Pavón ran to Woodgate who was still prone on the pitch. He helped him from it and patted him on the back. As the half-time whistle approached, Woodgate’s evening worsened as his name was added to the referee’s book for an impetuous lunge from behind on Carlos Gurpegi. The intermission was used to settle nerves and take a much-needed breath. At least it’s out of the way, he may have wrongly assumed. But in the second half, the storm clouds loomed lower still and things went from bad to worse. The waking nightmare that was Woodgate’s debut came into its final act.
As Real surrendered possession in their opponents’ half, the ball was flicked forward towards the halfway line. There the ball was prodded on again, this time in behind Los Blancos’ defence where it was pursued by Etxeberria. Face to face once more with his personally assigned tormentor for the game, Woodgate found it impossible to deal with the winger.
On the back foot as Etxeberria took a touch and span round the exposed defender into space, Woodgate chose not to drop in and chase but instead take a step up, into Etxeberria, and forearm him away, hoping to block the run and prevent the threat from spreading. He believed he’d simply used his frame to extinguish a building attack. The referee, however, believed he’d unfairly imposed himself upon the attacker in a fashion deserving of a caution.
Woodgate’s teammates immediately swarmed the referee, some remonstrating furiously, others attempting to bargain with the official. Casillas and Robinho pointed, shouted, argued the injustice of it all. How could that possibly be deserving of a booking? Roberto Carlos tried a more tactful approach, placing a calm hand on the side of the referee’s face and hoping perhaps to charm the card back into his pocket. But the referee had already made up his mind. Nothing but a second yellow would suffice. Woodgate was sent off.
As Woodgate trudged off the pitch, inconsolable, the Real faithful made the collective decision to stand for him, to cheer him, in part applauding his day’s futile work but mostly in recognition of the extraordinary lengths he had pushed himself to feature for Madrid at all following his repeated injuries. It helped, of course, that by the time Woodgate had picked up his second booking of the afternoon, Robinho had brought his team level and Raúl had notched either side of the defender’s early ejection to give them a 3-1 victory.
“If Real Madrid had not won Woodgate would have ended up abandoning the country in a van with flowers painted on the side. His destination: some hippy retreat where the past no longer matters,” mused Spanish writer Juanma Trueba. “This was not just a comeback, it was the rehabilitation of a footballer who has been pursued by bad luck to the point of ridiculousness and beyond. Luckily, Madrid saved Private Woodgate. He continues his rehabilitation treatment and the hippies, for now, have lost a convert.”
Beyond the luckless launch that verged on the absurd, Woodgate was able to step up his rehabilitation by reclaiming a place in the Real team. Finding far greater success when partnering fellow new recruit Sergio Ramos, who had joined the Real cause from domestic rivals Sevilla, Woodgate and co conspired to keep 10 clean sheets in 13 games between mid-October and late-February. The problem was, in spite of the fine 13 appearances he did make, there were some 40 or so he didn’t, as was so often the case, on account of his unavoidable susceptibility to injury.
The notable performances with which he followed his debut lead to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe writing at the time that Woodgate had set about “proving himself one of Europe’s finest defenders, a snip at £13.4 million” and claimed the city and beyond were “raving about him”. Perhaps even more impressive than the performances themselves, though, was the determined, positive mindset Woodgate employed to move beyond his disastrous debut and perform with such confidence throughout the remainder of the season.
But so seldom were the chances afforded to Madrid fans to applaud the Englishman that, in the end, his more adroit appearances proved too little too late to see his error-ridden opener put completely out of mind. This was never made more apparent than when, in 2007, Woodgate was voted the league’s worst buy of the century by readers of Spanish sports daily Marca, in which he polled 37.11 percent of the votes cast.
Having spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch during the previous season, and with a history that gave no support to the idea that his injury woes were a thing of the past, Woodgate found himself some way south of new boss Fabio Capello’s plans at the beginning of the 2006/07 campaign. Indeed, the defender wasn’t afforded a place in the squad at all and was instead loaned to hometown club Middlesbrough. Despite many solid performances during the temporary spell, Capello gave no thought to a reunion, and in April 2007, less than a year after sealing the initial loan, Woodgate’s deal with the Teesside club was made permanent.
After three seasons and just 14 appearances, enough injuries to last any career, and an opening bow to stand the test of time for all the wrong reasons, Woodgate’s divisive stay in Madrid was over, destined to live on only as traces of memory and flashes of film. Despite waking with a startling jolt from his dream move, Woodgate had at least endured it all even at its most nightmarish.
On the other side of his Spanish sojourn, Woodgate played almost another decade of football, including two spells at boyhood club Middlesbrough that bookended a three-year stay in North London with Tottenham, which saw him win his first and last major honour, and a memorable year plying his trade Stoke.
Whether or not he looks back fondly upon his time in Spain may well be an answer that changes with age, as his perspective shifts like the sands of time and the flashbacks of that forsaken debut reappear on sleepless nights against closed eyelids a little less. Thankfully for Woodgate, that game is alone, just a single startling anomaly, as not one of his four subsequent debuts came close to being as memorable as the one he made in Madrid.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp