When I think of the early 2000s ‘Galacticos’ I think of Zinedine Zidane, Brazilian Ronaldo, David Beckham, and of course Luis Figo. These were the statement signings made by the highly controversial character, Florentino Pérez, when he became the Real Madrid president in 2000.
With those players in attack, Los Blancos were guaranteed to score a shed load of goals, which they did, but to quote Sir Alex Ferguson, “goals win you games, defence wins you titles”. The issue that Madrid faced in Pérez’s first reign was the complete neglect towards the defensive side of the game. Nearly all recruits were in the attacking areas, creating a top-heavy side that leaked goals.
Claude Makélélé is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the history of football, so good that he had a role named after him, but Pérez seemingly overlooked his importance to the team. Angered by the decision not to improve his contract, the Frenchman handed in a transfer request and was sold to Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea – a move which former captain Fernando Hierro claimed was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos. It also conveniently coincided with the start of an era of Premier League dominance for the Blues, which tells you all you need to know about Makélélé’s ability.
The season after Makélélé’s departure, Real Madrid struggled to a 4th place finish in La Liga, losing their final three games of what turned out to be a dismal season. In the summer of 2004, Pérez signed two new central defenders and a new defensive midfielder to fill the void left by Makélélé, and it looked for all the world that the Real Madrid president was changing his ways.
However, when Walter Samuel, Thomas Gravesen, and Jonathan Woodgate walked into the centre of the Bernabéu pitch, donning the infamous white jersey, you could be mistaken for thinking this was some sort of cruel April fools’ prank. The sad reality for Real Madrid fans was that it wasn’t, and these were the new rear guard that Pérez had recruited to lead the club to glory. I see why he neglected the defensive signings now…
Whilst this article could equally be about Samuel or Gravesen, Woodgate’s Real Madrid transfer was a shambles from start to finish. In July 2007, readers of Spain’s leading sports daily newspaper, Marca, voted the Englishman as the ‘worst signing of the 21st century’. In an era where Liverpool spent £35 million on Andy Carroll, and Shanghai Shenhua paid an overweight Carlos Tevez £8 million per goal in wages, Woodgate’s move to the Spanish capital is still regarded as the worst of them all.
Two years, fourteen appearances, one goal, one own goal, and one red card, this piece will detail exactly what went wrong for Woodgate at Real Madrid.
Excelling on Home Soil
Born in Middlesbrough, Woodgate joined their academy at a young age, leaving club coaches in awe of his defensive abilities at such a young age. Following disagreements about his future, the former England international made the switch to the Leeds academy, where again he excelled.
After winning the FA Youth Cup in 1997, Woodgate was soon thrust into the first team. In a Leeds defence that boasted names like Rio Ferdinand, Alfie Haaland, Lucas Radebe, and Dominic Matteo, it was Woodgate that was widely regarded as the most complete player.
Nicknamed the ‘jewel in the crown’ by the Leeds faithful, Woodgate spent five successful seasons at Elland Road, propelling himself into the England setup. Despite struggling with fitness, something he would do for the majority of his career, the Englishman was not short of interested parties throughout his spell in Yorkshire.
With Leeds heading for financial troubles, chairman Peter Risdale authorised the sale of Woodgate to Newcastle for £9 million in the 2003 January transfer window. From jewel in the crown to a kick in the crown jewels, his sale was met with complete disbelief by Leeds fans, who felt he was the future of the club. Woodgate was not unhappy at the club, nor was he pushing for a move, the transfer was completely out of his hands.
Despite his preference to stay at Leeds, Woodgate soon adhered himself to the St James’ crowd, putting in a string of excellent performances that made the £9 million fee look a bargain. In particular, his performance in Newcastle’s 2004 UEFA Cup semi-final clash with Marseille, where he completely dominated an up-and-coming Ivorian forward that went by the name of Didier Drogba.
Sadly for the Magpies’ loyal fans, it was the last time that Woodgate would wear the famous black and white stripes. Much to Drogba’s delight, the Englishman was ruled out of the second leg, and the rest of the season, through injury. A Woodgate-less Magpies defence was breached twice by the Ivorian without reply, securing Marseille’s place in the UEFA Cup final.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter who you are playing for, when Real Madrid comes calling, you listen. In July 2003, Beckham relinquished his infamous number seven shirt at Manchester United in favour of the Real Madrid number 23 top. Despite a poor season in Beckham’s debut campaign in 2003/04, Los Blancos were still able to prize Ballon d’Or winner Michael Owen away from his boyhood Liverpool side ahead of the 04/05 campaign.
Keen to bolster the Los Blancos’ defence following the departures of Makélélé and Hierro in 2003, Pérez had several of Europe’s elite defenders firmly in his crosshairs. Samuel’s signature was secured within a week of the 03/04 campaign concluding, and the Real Madrid president wasn’t finished there. Names like Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, and Sami Hyypiä were all touted with a move to the Spanish capital, with Pérez keen to find his next Galactico.
However, after being rebuffed by primary target, Nesta, and secondary targets, Cannavaro and Hypiä, time was running out for Pérez in his pursuit of another centre-back. They had also been rejected by their number one defensive midfield target, Patrick Vieira, who instead signed a contract extension at Arsenal. What started as a promising summer for Los Blancos soon turned into a disaster. With the potential recruits list diminishing by the second, Pérez turned his attention to the ‘Nunthorpe Nesta’, as he was known by absolutely nobody.
In a move that sent shockwaves around the globe, Woodgate was unveiled as a Real Madrid player. His £13.4 million transfer from Newcastle was met with a pandemic of astonishment from Premier League fans, with everyone wondering how on earth he’s managed to bag himself a move to Madrid.
Don’t get me wrong, on his day he was a class defender, in the eyes of former manager Sir Bobby Robson “the best in the country”, but he hardly fit the profile of a Pérez signing. Firstly, he’s about the least extravagant ‘Galactico’ signing there has been, lacking the persona that his soon-to-be teammates Beckham and Zidane had. Becks was frequently in the tabloids, whilst Woodgate’s only non-footballing features in the newspaper were surrounding his appearance at Crown Court.
Then there was the fact that his injury list was longer than his honours list. Out of a possible 128 games for Newcastle, he featured in just 37. His persistent injury problems were a huge red flag, especially given the fact that he was out injured when he arrived at the club.
Still struggling with the torn thigh muscle that saw him miss Euro 2004, it’s rather surprising that Woodgate passed his medical in the first place. Upon his arrival at the Spanish capital, Pérez claimed that he would be “back playing within three weeks”, and boy he couldn’t be more wrong.
In a recent podcast that Woodgate appeared in, he highlighted the unorthodox methods that Real Madrid used to try and get him back to full fitness. 1,000 sit-ups a day, Botox, injections, and a weird guy that wrapped grass around his leg with clingfilm, are all examples of the weird treatments he received at the club.
As to be expected when you look at how ridiculous the methods are, none of them worked, and Woodgate was unable to shake off his injury woes. The former England international didn’t step foot on the pitch for the entirety of the 2004/05 campaign, restricted to watching on from the side-lines as arch-rivals Barcelona won La Liga.
By the time Woodgate was back in training, his England compatriot Owen had already left for Newcastle. Despite signing in the same window, the two Englishmen never graced the Bernabéu pitch together. Ahead of the 2005/06 season, Woodgate was nearing a return to full fitness, even managing a 10-minute cameo in a pre-season friendly, although many felt he had been rushed back. His name appeared on the substitutes list for Madrid’s first three La Liga fixtures, however, he wasn’t called upon.
A shaky start to the season, which saw Los Blancos pick up just three points out of a possible nine, combined with injury to Iván Helguera, saw Woodgate poised for his competitive debut. Up next for Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s side was Athletic Bilbao, who on paper posed little threat to the mighty Real Madrid.
An agonising 516 days after being unveiled as a Real Madrid player, Woodgate was finally named in the starting 11. As he made his way out of the tunnel for the warmup, he was treated to a rapturous reception from the home crowd, who were hoping he could become the club’s early-season saviour following back-to-back defeats. Keen to impress the fans that have supported him through his injury woes, the Englishman took to the pitch with a motivated gaze. A chance to become an instant hero.
The pre-match hype anticipation was as good as it got for Woodgate, who many will say put in the worst debut in the history of European football. A complete disaster class from start to finish. Every little boy’s dream is to score at the Bernabéu, and 20 minutes into the game and Woodgate had already achieved that dream. A beautiful goal too, a venomous diving header from the edge of the box that completely wrong-footed the goalkeeper.
Sadly, it was his own goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, that the ball flew past. After watching the replay, I can safely say that the shot he launched himself in front of was going well wide of Casillas’ goal. A nightmare start for the former England international, but things could only get better, right?
Just seconds later and Woodgate almost immediately made amends, again launching himself at a trademark Beckham cross. He was inches away, but at least it was in the right box this time.
With the half-time interval fast approaching, Woodgate once again showed his overexuberance to become a hero, lunging in from behind on Carlos Gerpegui. You can’t fault the commitment or effort, but his rustiness was there for all to see. His tackle was mistimed, and the Englishman found his name added to the referee’s book.
Shortly after this, referee Undiano Mallenco blew the half-time whistle, signalling the end to a turbulent 45 minutes for Woodgate. The whistle must have felt like music to the ears of the Englishman, who I can only imagine was wishing he had pulled a sicky. In many teams, the half-time interval would be an ideal time to settle the nerves and recalibrate, but when you’ve got Galactico’s Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo giving you daggers from across the dressing room, the anxiety levels were certain to rise.
The Poster Boy for Bad Debuts
His teammates came flying out the blocks for the second half, with Robinho heading in an equaliser in the 53rd minute. Los Blancos continued to assert their dominance on proceedings, and Raúl provided a second in the 65th minute.
It looked like Woodgate had weathered the storm, but unfortunately for the Englishman, the storm clouds loomed lower, and things went from bad to worse. He joined an illustrious list of players, including world greats Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, not to forget Gervinho either.
Sadly for Woodgate, the list was of players that had been sent off on their debut for club/country. After working hard to recover the deficit his own goal caused, the Englishman had cost Los Blancos again. Bilbao forward Joseba Etxeberria received the ball on the halfway line, knocking the ball past Woodgate and into open space, a great bit of skill.
In hindsight, the former Newcastle man should have swallowed his pride and let the Spaniard pass him, with a covering defender coming across. Instead, Woodgate made the ludicrous decision to step across his man, earning himself a second yellow card and an early bath on his Real Madrid debut. Despite protesting his innocence, he really could have few complaints.
As he completed his walk of shame down the tunnel, the Madrid fans did their best to make their appreciation for the Englishman heard. Whilst it may have come across as sarcastic applause, the Bernabéu crowd were clapping in recognition of the hard work that Woodgate had gotten through to overcome his injury woes.
Luckily for the Englishman, his teammates are quite good at football and were still able to come out of the game as 3-1 winners. Woodgate once again found himself unavailable for selection, this time through suspension.
Whatever you say about Woodgate’s debut, you can’t fault his mindset and determination to make it a minor blip on his Real Madrid portfolio. In his first start after the own goal and red card, the Englishman converted at the right end of the pitch in a 4-1 victory against Rosenborg in the Champions League.
He and a young and inexperienced Spanish centre-back that you may have heard of, Sergio Ramos, formed a formidable partnership at the heart of Los Blancos’ defence between October and February. The duo, who personality wise make chalk and cheese look like a married couple, kept 10 clean sheets out of a possible 13. Woodgate’s performances were “the talk of the city”, and the Madrid fans were finally able to see exactly why he was brought to the club in the first place.
However, in spite of his performances on the pitch, the amount of time spent in the treatment room still outweighed his availability. Woodgate had moved past his disastrous debut, but was unable to avoid his growing susceptibility to niggly muscle injuries. Good for the most part when available, but he only featured in 14 of a possible 43 games, and was unable to string three consecutive games together.
You’d think his performances post-debut would have salvaged some of his reputation at Real Madrid, but his time at the club is pretty much only remembered for his debut. His first, and last, playing season at Real Madrid resulted in no silverware, and once again Barcelona were crowned La Liga champions.
Life after Los Blancos
Fabio Capello was reinstated as Real Madrid manager for the second time in his career, and it was clear that Woodgate was not fancied by the Italian. Looking to get his career back on track, the Englishman was loaned out to his hometown club Middlesbrough for the 2006/07 season. Despite impressing at the Riverside Stadium throughout his loan spell, and more importantly staying injury-free, Capello still had no intentions of re-integrating Woodgate into the Real Madrid setup.
Los Blancos had just won their first La Liga title in four years, whilst also securing the signature of long-term centre-back target, Cannavaro. Woodgate had slipped even further down the pecking order, and his loan to Middlesbrough was made permanent, signalling the end to a rollercoaster 18 months in the Spanish capital.
After losing his starting berth to David Wheater of all people, Woodgate made the move to Tottenham and cemented his place in one of the most injury-riddled centre-back partnerships ever seen in English football, alongside Ledley King. The crooked duo did however bring a trophy to North London, with the former Madrid man heading home the winner in the 2008 League Cup final against Chelsea.
For a man that Bryan Robson described as “the best in the country” at one stage, the 2008 League Cup is the only major honour that appears on Woodgate’s CV. A career completely demolished by injury, it does make you wonder what the Englishman could have achieved had his body not been weaker than Amir Khan’s chin