Thursday, September 22, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: September 21, 4:23 PM UK
Woodgate's debut disaster
The history books are littered with torrid debuts, and even football's current golden boy Lionel Messi (for Argentina) is among them. However, they don't come much worse than Jonathan Woodgate's for Spanish giants Real Madrid on September 22, 2005. The former Leeds man scored an own goal and was then sent off in just over an hour of play. It has since become known as one of the most calamitous debuts of all-time.
Real Madrid's decision to sign England international defender Jonathan Woodgate from Newcastle United for £13.4 million in August 2004 had raised some eyebrows. Coming through the Leeds academy, the young centre-back was viewed as one of the best prospects of his generation and was described as 'the jewel in the crown' of the Yorkshire club, but he had struggled with various injuries in his fledging career and had been unable to complete a full season.
His 18-month spell at Newcastle after leaving Leeds only served to highlight his susceptibility to injury. In one-and-a-half seasons, Woodgate played in just 37 out of 128 possible games but, even with his well-documented problems, there were still those who spoke highly of him.
Already a controversial figure due to his court appearance alongside Lee Bowyer in 2000 in which he was eventually convicted of affray after an incident at a nightclub and sentenced to 100 hours' community service, Woodgate was certainly viewed as something of a gamble for one of the world's most prestigious footballing institutions. Because of his off-pitch actions, the English FA had deemed him unfit to play for his country at the 2002 World Cup, yet just two years later he was arriving at the Bernabeu.
Madrid themselves were undergoing something of managerial crisis. With Jose Antonio Camacho resigning just a few months into his tenure, stop-gap coach Mariano Garcia Remon was forced to take over the reins. Many pointed to the addition of David Beckham (who had arrived the season before) and Michael Owen (joining that same summer) as an English blueprint for Real's future success. Alongside the established galacticos in his new surroundings, few would blame Woodgate for his decision.
"I don't blame Jonathan in a way because he's going to arguably the biggest club in the world, I think, at this moment," then-Newcastle manager Sir Bobby Robson told the BBC. "The power of Figo and Ronaldo, Zidane, then Beckham and now Owen. If you were in his shoes, what would you do? This is an extreme, exceptional offer which basically we had to take. 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."
The qualification of Robson's parting statement spoke volumes about Woodgate's condition. At his best, he was still viewed as an exceptional talent, but he offered that sight too little for many to back him. Indeed, upon signing his four-year deal with Real, pundits wondered aloud whether he would actually pass his medical and be allowed to join his new club.
He did, but not before Real owner Florentino Perez had foolishly insisted: "He'll be playing within three weeks." In fact, Perez would be blamed for rushing the club's doctors to get their new defender back on the pitch and it was no surprise when he broke down in training to miss the entirety of his first season in Spain.
Having spent such a long time on the sidelines, when his debut did arrive a mere 516 days after his unveiling, it received worldwide attention. A brief appearance for Real in the final five minutes of a pre-season match in August had made it clear that Woodgate was finally ready to return and the Madrid fans were keen to see what kind of an impact he would have on a flagging side.
The club had long since seen the back of Camacho and were now in the loving grasp of Vanderlei Luxemburgo - although he would be ushered out before Christmas for another stop-gap in Juan Ramon Lopez Caro. Opponents Athletic Bilbao, on paper, would cause them few problems, but the side had lost their last three games and were sat in the relegation zone. Woodgate was heralded as a potential early-season saviour.
Indeed, with Francisco Pavon lining up alongside him in place of the injured Ivan Helguera, Woodgate was given a rapturous reception when his name was read out over the stadium PA ahead of kick-off. However, 25 minutes into his long-awaited debut, the Englishman would be wishing that he had delayed it a little longer.
A smattering of applause had followed his early moves, but when he stooped to try and head away Joseba Etxeberria's shot, he only succeeding in directing it past Iker Casillas in the Real net. Later, Woodgate would assert: "It was not the best start in the world. 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."
But worse was to come. Before the half was over, Woodgate picked up a booking for a crunching challenge from behind on Carlos Gurpegi. Watching substitute Alvaro Mejia warm up on the sidelines soon after the restart suggested that he was treading on thin ice, but before any change could be made he picked up a second yellow card for a block on his tormentor Etxeberria. With 66 minutes gone, Woodgate departed to the slightly bizarre sound of cheers.
"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,'' he said after the game. "I want to thank the public, who were brilliant when I was walking off. They were all clapping and cheering."
In the context of the game, the sending-off mattered little as Real legend Raul had sandwiched Woodgate's final act with two sharp goals to ensure that the galacticos left the pitch 3-1 victors.
The fans were willing to forgive his early impetuousness and, while many focused on the negatives of Woodgate's performance, there were positives to take from his first showing in the famous shirt. One columnist wrote that he was: "fantastic, a centre-back with something of [Fernando] Hierro about him. Strong in the challenge, elegant with the ball at his feet, powerful in the air, he has that great virtue for a defender - when he clashes with an opponent, it hurts all over."
To his credit, Woodgate did not shirk his responsibilities and answered the baying press pack's questions in almost perfect Spanish. But the warning signs were there.
"If Real Madrid had not won," wrote AS columnist Juanma Trueba, "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. This was not just a come-back, 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."
Unfortunately for 'Private Woodgate', the past would soon come back to haunt him again.
What happened next? Woodgate's injury curse continued and he played only nine league games for Real and never fully regained his fitness. He attempted to get his career back on track by joining Middlesbrough on a season long loan in 2006-07, which ultimately turned into a permanent deal, before more injury concerns followed him to Tottenham where he won the only major honour of his career: the Carling Cup. His eventual release from Spurs gave him one last chance at proving himself with Stoke in 2011, but he was still voted the worst buy of the century by readers of leading sports daily Marca (polling 37.11% of the votes cast) and Real have not turned to another Englishman since.