When asked to name Real Madrid’s early noughties Galacticos, the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham spring to mind.
Jonathan Woodgate’s name is a little further down the list and the defender’s spell in the Spanish capital is remembered for all the wrong reasons.
It’s easy to forget that Woodgate’s career began with plenty of promise. He won the FA Youth Cup with Leeds United in 1997, breaking into the Whites’ first team the following year.
Regarded as one of the most complete all round players to come through the Leeds academy, Woodgate settled into the heart of the club’s defence with a number of impressive displays as a centre-back partner for Lucas Radebe.
He helped the Whites achieve three consecutive top four finishes in the Premier League, while they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001.
In January 2003, Woodgate was sold to Newcastle United as Leeds’ financial problems became apparent, and although he quickly became a fans’ favourite at St. James’ Park, a string of injuries limited his gametime.
In his first 18 months at Newcastle, the defender made just 37 appearances out of a possible 128.
Eyebrows were therefore raised when Real Madrid, in need of defensive reinforcements, came calling in the summer of 2004.
They splashed out £13.4million on 24-year-old Woodgate, but he was actually injured at the time so it is something of a surprise that he even passed a medical.
In fact the Englishman’s problem with a torn thigh muscle was so bad that he was sidelined for his entire first season in Spain. He finally returned to fitness to start against Athletic Bilbao on 22 September 2005 – 516 days after he had been unveiled as a Real Madrid player.
What followed was one of the most infamous debuts in football, often considered the worst ever.
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25 minutes into the game, he tried to intercept a Bilbao cross but inadvertently turned it into his own net with a diving header.
But he wasn’t done there. Midway through the second half, Woodgate picked up a second yellow card for a body check on an opponent. The own goal and red card combo was complete.
Making perhaps the biggest understatement of the year, Woodgate said afterwards: “It was not the best start in the world.
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“Obviously, I did not want to get an own goal. I couldn't believe it. I went to try to block the ball and it just skimmed off my head.
“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.
“I want to thank the public, who were brilliant when I was walking off. They were all clapping and cheering.”
In fairness, things couldn’t have got much worse for the defender and he did at least score on his Champions League debut for Madrid in a 4-1 win over Rosenborg.
Woodgate didn’t necessarily do that badly when he played, helping the team to 10 clean sheets in his 14 appearances that campaign, but once again injuries proved his undoing. He never started more than two consecutive league games and his season was ended in mid-February.
Upon Fabio Capello’s appointment as Real manager in the summer of 2006, World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro was signed and Woodgate was loaned out to boyhood club Middlesbrough. The following summer he moved to the Riverside permanently, his dream of being a Madrid legend well and truly over.
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Woodgate’s legacy at the Bernabeu is a damning one. In July 2007, he was voted the club’s worst signing of the 21st century by readers of Marca, receiving 37.11 per cent of the votes. Real have not signed another English player since.
Injuries continued to blight the defender’s career which was not without its highs – he scored the winning goal in Tottenham Hotspur’s 2008 League Cup triumph – but ultimately he spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch and retired at the age of 36 in 2016.
Speaking in 2017, Woodgate actually looked back fondly on his time in Spain.
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“It was great! I loved it,” he said. “Hadn’t played for a year. First game: red card and an own goal. It’s no problem.
“When I played, I played well. I played good games when I played, but I didn’t play enough. That’s my biggest regret.
“I always think about it. I was at the biggest team in the world and I couldn’t play every game.”
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