Debuts Part 9: Woodgate

Debuts aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. SAM WILSON reminisces on Jonathan Woodgate’s disastrous Real Madrid bow

In Real Madrid’s famous galáctico era, the Santiago Bernabeú field was graced by the presence of some of the greatest footballers in the history of the sport: Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, and David Beckham to name but a few. However, in the words of Sylvester Stallone in the sixth installment of the Rocky series: “the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.”

The day after Michael Owen took part in his first training session with Madrid, they made their second official English signing of the summer of 2004, purchasing Newcastle United defender Jonathan Woodgate for £13.4 million. At that point, Woodgate had been sidelined with a thigh injury since the spring, and Madrid were concerned he would not pass his medical. That concern would, inevitably, evolve into a regret that Woodgate did not fail his medical, by the time he left the club in 2007.

Often we remember player debuts for their scoring heroics, derby antics or dichotomous performances, yet Woodgate’s debut for Madrid simply can be summed up with one word: woeful. Despite signing for Madrid in 2004 Woodgate, as mentioned, was injured and did not make his debut until 2005. To be specific, 22 September was the fateful day where Madrid fans finally got to see Woodgate in action.

To set the scene, Real Madrid had lost their last three games and sat in the relegation zone of La Liga. Spanish eyes turned to Jonathan Woodgate, hoping he could be the team’s saviour. It was a Thursday night in Madrid at the Bernabeú, with Athletic Bilbao the visitors.

Twenty-five minutes into the match Woodgate made his mark, when he sent a diving header past goalkeeper Iker Casillas after a long-range effort from Joseba Etxeberria. After sending Bilbao into the lead, Woodgate remained on the floor for a brief moment, head buried in the green grass of the Bernabeú.

After the game, Woodgate is quoted by BBC as saying: “I couldn’t believe it. I went to try to block the ball and it just skimmed off my head. Obviously, I did not want to get an own goal.” Such wise words from such a talented defender, who knows, “obviously”, that scoring an own goal on your debut with one of, if not the biggest club in the world is not a good thing.

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After the own goal, Woodgate probably thought that it couldn’t get much worse. Oh but little did he know! Towards the end of the first half, Woodgate lunged in on Athletic’s midfielder Carlos Gurpegi, picking up a careless, and ultimately regrettable, yellow card.

By the 65th minute, Real Madrid were in the lead, with David Beckham providing two assists from set pieces as the La Liga giants overturned the deficit that Beckham’s compatriot Woodgate had caused. However, after pushing Joseba Etxeberria, Woodgate, who appeared to be in a state of total disbelief, was awarded his second yellow card.

His state of disbelief was echoed when he spoke after the game: “I just can’t believe I got sent off. I didn’t think the second yellow card was right, you know, but it’s the referee’s decision.”

Woodgate’s debut set the tone for his spell in Madrid. He would go on to play just eight more games for Madrid in La Liga, two in the Spanish cup and three in the Champions League, scoring his only goal for the club in a 4-1 win over Rosenborg in the group stage. However, according to The Guardian, one Spanish newspaper did, at one point, describe Woodgate as becoming “Madrid’s true leader” when he managed to cement a place in the starting XI. Despite this, injury problems continued to plague Woodgate’s spell in Madrid and, in 2006, he signed a one-year loan deal with hometown side Middlesbrough.

Woodgate officially completed a permanent return to Boro in 2007, signing for £7 million, around half the price that Real Madrid had signed the Northerner for just three years prior.

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