Jonathan Woodgate: Flashback to the Worst Debut in Football History

Jonathan Woodgate has always held a special place in my heart.

By the time I really found my love for football Woodgate was playing for Middlesbrough. But there was just something about the man that intrigued me. In part it was his long hair that he held in place with an Alice band. In part it was that he looked really quite anaemic and in part it was that he didn’t play how British centre backs are supposed to play.

British centre backs are supposed to be no nonsense, tough tackling, snap the tricky winger in half and boot the ball away like it’s a hot potato kind of blokes. But Woodgate was part of a rare breed, he was classy. Like Rio Ferdinand or John Stones.

It’s one thing to see a South American defender come in with hair down to his shoulders and pass the ball around like a number 10, but when the man doing it from Yorkshire, it’s almost too much to comprehend. 

However, what truly what marked Woodgate as special in my eyes was that he had played for Real Madrid. The idea of British players turning out at the Santiago Bernabeu has always been faintly amusing to me.

In a team made up of the most expensive, exotic and stylish footballers in the world it’s always an odd experience to hear the names ‘Steve’ or ‘Michael’ or ‘Gareth’ or ‘Jonathan’ called out. Again, it’s almost too much to comprehend.

As a result, when I saw Woodgate playing for Middlesbrough and then Spurs and then Stoke, knowing that he had once turned out in the Spanish capital in a side featuring Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and the original Ronaldo, it was almost like I dreamed it.

But what absolutely immortalised the entire thing in the annals of my personal history of football was that Woodgate’s debut was probably the worst debut in footballing history.


First though, a bit of backstory…

Woodgate came through at Leeds at a time when Leeds were one of the most exciting sides in Europe. Yet much of Woodgate’s reputation was earned off the pitch.

In 2001 he escaped a custodial conviction for affray, alongside team mate Lee Bowyer and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Woodgate was also left out of England’s 2002 World Cup because of concerns over his behaviour.

Village (short for village idiot, as he was known to his friends) was also quickly developing a reputation for being injury prone. But in the face of all of it Woodgate’s talent shone through though and in January 2003 Newcastle snapped him up for £8m.

Having gone from a Leeds side that had reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001, Woodgate joined a Newcastle side that was raising a few eyebrows itself. A few months before signing Woodgate, Newcastle had gone to the Camp Nou and Shola Ameobi scored.

Obviously they lost, but Shola Ameobi, a.k.a. Shola ’53 goals in 14 years’ Ameobi scored against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. The early 2000s were a weird time in British football.

Vindicating Newcastle’s trust in him, in 2004 Woodgate starred in his side’s UEFA Cup Semi final clash against Marseille and according to reports, he put a young, but thoroughly lethal Didier Drogba in his back pocket. Unfortunately though, Woodgate suffered a serious injury soon after which ended his season prematurely.

Nonetheless, his appearances had caught the eye of Florentino Perez and having brought in David Beckham the year previous, Perez continued to give Real Madrid a much needed injection of the North of England, bringing in Thomas Gravesen from Everton, Ballon d’Or winning Michael Owen from Liverpool and most importantly, Jonathan Woodgate from Newcastle.

When news broke that Real Madrid had agreed a deal for Woodgate a number of journalists questioned whether he would actually manage to pass his medical. Perez scoffed and announced that his answer to Paolo Maldini would be playing within three weeks.

Needless to say, Woodgate suffered an injury in training and missed the entirety of his first season.


The game itself…

When the 2004-5 season came around things looked a little different in the Spanish capital. Michael Owen had departed for Newcastle after a single season, while a promising young defender going by the name of Sergio Ramos had arrived from Sevilla.

Woodgate was under pressure. But in an early season League game against Atletico Bilbao Ivan Helguera was forced off injured after just 20 minutes.

Quite poetically, Sergio Ramos was suspended and so Real’s brilliantly named manager Vanderlei Luxemburgo turned to Woodgate, who in the 561 days he had been a Real Madrid player hadn’t played so much as a minute, and said “get out there and make history Jono”.

In the interests of honesty I have no evidence to suggest Luxemburgo did say that. But irrespective, make history is exactly what Woodgate did.

Sitting in the relegation zone and fresh on the back of three defeats, according to the Guardian Woodgate was welcomed by the Bernabeu as the team’s saviour. Joining the field to a huge cheer Woodgate set about marshalling the Madrid defence and making it look like he absolutely was the saviour the Bernabeu had been longing for.

Then Joseba Etxeberria picked up the ball on the left hand side of the pitch. Facing Michel Salgado, Etxeberria dropped his shoulder and dipped inside, getting the ball onto his right foot. From there he whipped the ball into the box.

Was it a cross? Was it a shot? I don’t know and I don’t care.

Everything Etxeberria had been trying to accomplish became instantly insignificant when Jonathan Woodgate, faced with a ball heading pretty much straight for him, decided to move every inch of his body besides his head, thereby sending an unstoppable header past the best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas.

Legend is a word overused and under-appreciated. But a legend is what Woodgate carved that day.

A debut own goal is bad enough for most, but Woodgate had other ideas in mind and just before half time he clattered into Bilbao’s midfielder Carlos Gurpegi near the half way line earning himself a yellow card.

Then just after the hour a Real Madrid attack broke down, Bilbao cleared the ball and fate extended its greasy fingers, ensuring the ball fell straight to Etxeberria. Woodgate should have known something terrible was about to happen, he should have faked an injury or just run away, but to his eternal credit, with the Bilbao man threatening to run free in behind him, Woodgate tried to defend.

Unfortunately he didn’t do it very well and instead of subtly blocking Etxeberria’s run he just sort of walked into him and gave him an elbow.

Now in certain areas of the world that is considered to be the epitome of good defending. One of those places is Yorkshire, but equally, one of those places doesn’t happen to be Spain.

As such Woodgate was given a second yellow card and was thereby sent packing, bringing an end to a debut that came 561 days later than expected, began 20 minutes into the game and ended half an hour before it ended, with the cherry on top being a beautifully awkward own goal threatening to resign Real to 4 consecutive defeats.

Legendary indeed.


Woodgate’s legacy…

Speaking after the game Woodgate demonstrated the British panache for understatement by revealing that his debut was ‘not the best start in the world’, while the BBC went for the silver linings approach to the ordeal by revealing that on the bright side, Woodgate hadn’t got injured.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly Woodgate didn’t become a Real Madrid legend.

Instead he was shipped off back to Middlesbrough the following summer thereby bringing an end to a moment in time that was so bizarre, I’m not entirely sure I believe it happened (like when Real Madrid signed Julian Faubert).

Yet, despite enduring probably the most horrific debut in footballing history, no one can argue Woodgate hasn’t written his name into the history books.

Success, adoration and glory are things that on some level we all crave. But above all we want to be remembered and make no mistake, Jonathan Woodgate will be remembered.

So long live Jonathan Woodgate and the memory of his truly horrendous Real Madrid debut.


Written by Scott Pope

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