Real Madrid’s English era: How David Beckham’s grit earned glory at last
As the 2005-06 season began, Real Madrid’s English contingent was down to two.
The success enjoyed by Steve McMananman after arriving at the Bernabeu in 1999 had initiated an English mini-era in Madrid.
After McManaman’s two European Cup triumphs in white, Madrid had gone back to the Premier League for more. David Beckham arrived in 2003, followed by Michael Owen and, surprisingly, Jonathan Woodgate in 2004.
But McManaman had left after Beckham’s arrival – which you can read about in the first of this three-part series on Real Madrid’s English players.
And after a single season that had been neither roaring success nor dismal failure – which you can read about in the second part of the series – Owen departed for Newcastle in a £17million deal.
Yet Beckham remained one of Madrid’s main men and the good news was that Woodgate was on the recovery trail after his first-season injury nightmare.
After coming through training unscathed in the early weeks, he was inching closer to making his long-awaited debut. Finally, 13 months after his unveiling, he stepped back onto the Bernabeu pitch as a Real Madrid player.
What followed nobody could have predicted.
Debut disaster to ‘true leader’
It was one of the most ignominious debuts in footballing history, and the 25-year-old could have been forgiven for wishing he was injured again, doing his suffering in private.
Things unravelled like this.
After a fairly uneventful first 20 minutes, opposing Athletic Bilbao winger Joseba Exteberria cut in from the left and launched a powerful shot that looked to be going wide.
Woodgate – standing in the way of the shot – launched himself towards it but could only divert his attempted headed clearance past Iker Casillas and into his own net.
If he thought his evening couldn’t get any worse then he was wrong.
Before half-time he was booked for felling Carlos Gurpegi. Still, though, that wasn’t the half of it. On 66 minutes, Woodgate was sent off, picking up a second yellow for blocking the run of Exteberria.
To his credit – and despite his team-mates’ vehement protestations, including Roberto Carlos putting his hand on the referee’s cheek – the 25-year-old calmly walked off the pitch that he’d battled so hard to get onto.
What came next might have stunned him, as he was afforded a spontaneous standing ovation by the Bernabeu crowd; a reflection of everything they knew had come before; the setbacks, the struggle, the pain.
If that was the fans’ immediate reaction, it would’ve been a lot worse afterwards if Madrid had lost.
As Juanma Trueba of AS put it: “If Real Madrid hadn’t won, Woodgate would’ve 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 comeback, it was the rehabilitation of a footballer who has been pursued by bad luck to the point of ridiculousness – and beyond.”
But fortunately – helped by two Beckham assists – Madrid did win.
Woodgate – whose Spanish was now so good that he was able to field questions from local journalists afterwards – summed it up more pithily: “Fuck me, what a debut!”
In a touching moment, Woodgate later revealed that in the dressing-room following the encounter, Ronaldo – who had suffered badly himself with injuries – had come over straight away and asked whether his leg was OK.
With Woodgate responding that everything had felt fine, Ronaldo told him that was the most important thing and to forget about what had just happened.
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The next month Woodgate made his Champions League bow for Madrid at home to Rosenborg.
And that had an altogether better outcome, with the centre-half heading in the equaliser and contributing to his side’s eventual 4-1 win.
Despite further intermittent lay-offs, Woodgate continued to impress so much that in early 2006 one columnist went so far as to anoint him “Madrid’s true leader.”
By this point, Real were on to their fifth manager in 18 months. Vanderlei Luxemburgo had paid for his men’s poor form and was replaced by Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, boss of the club’s reserves.
But it had been a good winter for Woodgate, as he contributed to five clean sheets out of the six matches he started in the league.
Yet the last of those against Athletic Bilbao – somewhat poetically, given they had been the opposition on his debut – was to turn into his last-ever appearance for Los Blancos in La Liga, as injury cruelly struck again.
Back to Boro
Madrid were due to host Arsenal in the last 16 of the Champions League on February 21, and Woodgate had been rested from the preceding Saturday’s fixture with Alaves as a precaution.
But though he was selected to start against the Gunners, he knew a problem was still there.
“I’d felt something in my hamstring the day before,” he told AS in 2017. “I said to myself ‘This can’t be happening again, you’ve got to try it.’ So really I played that game knowing I was going to get injured. And I did.”
He lasted just nine minutes.
“It’s devastating for him – I think it’s his hamstring again,” Beckham said afterwards of his team-mate. “It must be terrible for him personally.”
It was. After making just 14 appearances, Woodgate played no further part in the season – which was once more to be a barren one for Los Merengues.
It took him until the summer – and a reunion with ex-Leeds physio Dave Hancock – to find his fitness again, and for a while, it threatened to be another new dawn for Woodgate under the latest managerial incumbent, Fabio Capello, who had by now taken over from the sacked Lopez Caro.
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In a sign of Hancock’s work over a three-month period in Madrid – Woodgate later said “he saved my career” – the 25-year-old managed to complete a full pre-season under Capello, describing the training camp in Austria as one of the toughest he’d ever done.
But after making the bench for the first La Liga fixture against Villarreal, Capello’s assistant Franco Baldini told Woodgate that he wouldn’t be playing much given the purchase of Italy’s World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, and asked whether he wanted to go on loan to Middlesbrough, who had enquired after him.
After so long out and having finally got pain-free, Woodgate wanted – needed – to play, and so he settled on making the return to England.
Remarkably, it turned out to be one of the best seasons of his career, making 36 appearances in all competitions under Gareth Southgate and avoiding lay-offs.
He also earned a recall for England, facing Spain in a friendly in early February.
So much was he enjoying his time back in the North-East that he walked into Southgate’s office in that same month and declared he wanted to sign permanently.
And so after nearly two years – and just 14 appearances – Woodgate’s time as a Real Madrid player had come to a close.
Though it seemed a sensible choice at the time, Woodgate admitted in the 2017 AS interview that he’d got it wrong.
“It was a big mistake signing for Boro when I had two years left on my contract at Real,” he said. “I should’ve come back and played for the best team in the world.
“It’s a big regret for me, because I was playing well.”
‘Half a film star’
Beckham was now the last Englishman standing in the Spanish capital. But things looked dicey for him too at the beginning of the 2006-07 season.
After a strong previous campaign, where he had registered five goals and 15 assists, he found himself out of the picture under Capello, who instead tended to play new Arsenal loanee Jose Antonio Reyes in Beckham’s customary right-sided role.
Indeed between mid-October and early February, the England midfielder made just three starts and speculation was beginning to mount about his future, with multiple reports detailing protracted negotiations.
Still, it came as a huge shock when sporting director Predrag Mijatovic declared in January that Beckham wouldn’t be staying beyond the end of the season.
It didn’t take long for the news to sink in before Beckham made his own public statement, announcing the following day that he would be leaving Madrid for the LA Galaxy.
Ramon Calderon – who had taken over as president from Florentino Perez in 2006 – didn’t hold back in his assessment of Beckham’s choice.
“He’s going to Hollywood to be half a film star,” Calderon said. “We were right not to extend his contract, which has been proved by the fact that no other technical staff in the world wanted him except Los Angeles.”
Whilst that might not have been strictly true, it was certainly a shock that Beckham had chosen to leave Europe at the age of 31, and with no obvious evidence of his abilities being in decline.
But then Beckham had never stuck to the script other people wrote for his life, and this £128million, five-year move would give him much more than just football.
It would take Brand Beckham to the stratosphere; it would give his wife Victoria a stage for her fashion business; it would also sow the seed for his second career off the pitch.
With Beckham’s Bernabeu bridges seemingly burnt, he was left out of the playing squad for a month.
But having applied himself as assiduously as usual in training, he managed to sway even Capello.
A Hollywood farewell
“We had doubts after he signed such an important contract with the American side,” the Italian coach said.
“We doubted he could train with the same enthusiasm after that, but he has been training perfectly. He has always had the full support of his team-mates. He has behaved like a great professional and is now returning to the squad.
“It is down to his hard work and attitude. The intelligent thing to do is to correct things when mistakes are made. We are very happy and he is too. I’m counting on him until the end of the season.”
It was quite the about-turn, but Beckham finally had his chance to carry out his main wish, which was to leave on a high, with a trophy.
Fittingly, he got his Hollywood farewell.
La Liga had looked lost for Madrid throughout much of the campaign, with Barcelona consistently keeping their noses in front. But it developed into one of the most thrilling title races in years.
Los Blancos took the league lead for the first time with just five games to go after a 4-3 win over Espanyol, sealed by a late Gonzalo Higuain strike.
And they knew that a win on the final day would wrap up the title, given their head-to-head superiority over their bitter rivals.
Ahead of the showdown, Beckham was candid about his emotions.
“It’s been possibly the toughest season of my career on and off the field,” he said. “I’ve gone through things that I never thought were possible.
“I’m sad to be leaving, I didn’t expect to be leaving, but everyone knows what has happened in the last six months. It was the most difficult time of my career, not being involved in training and matches and certain things being said that weren’t true.
“But the most important thing is the game on Sunday, what has gone on before doesn’t matter now.
“It is a big opportunity for me to win a trophy. That is what I came to the club for, not just to play with the likes of Raul, Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos and everybody else, but to win trophies, and hopefully we can do that.”
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But early on in Madrid, that dream looked to be turning into a nightmare. While Barcelona were hammering Gimnastic, Capello’s charges had gone behind to Real Mallorca.
Madrid still trailed beyond the hour mark, but an extraordinary denouement saw Reyes find an equaliser with just 10 minutes to go.
Mali midfielder Mahamadou Diarra then headed in a second to spark delirium inside a thronging Bernabeu containing Tom Cruise and Rafael Nadal.
Finally, Reyes added a third late on to seal his club’s first league title since 2003, the summer Beckham arrived.
There was a certain symmetry in seeing him arrive as he had left – with Real champions of Spain.
“I couldn’t have dreamt it any better,” Beckham said afterwards. “It’s been about winning the title for the last six months – and we’ve deserved it. Madrid has been an incredible experience, but all I remember now is the great things. Winning this puts everything else to bed.”
If this was the perfect way to sign off – walking around the Bernabeu draped in the English flag with his three sons and holding the La Liga trophy – then his departure was still mourned by many in Madrid, who recognised that his commitment and ability had made him one of the most important players during a challenging period in the club’s history.
Perhaps his impact was all the more appreciated given it hadn’t been expected.
As Ronaldo put it: “We knew before he was a good player, but we did not expect him to be such an influential player, to show such commitment to the team spirit.
“The way he runs for everything, the way he tries his best. He has everyone’s respect.”
And so on 10 July 2007, an eight-year English era at Real Madrid – which had begun with McManaman’s arrival on 1 July 1999 – came to an end.
Arguments about greatest players are invariably subjective, but there can be little doubt that McManaman – with six major honours, including two La Ligas and two Champions Leagues – is the most successful English player to ever represent Real Madrid.
Beckham’s achievements aren’t close. But that was largely a consequence of the state of flux the club found itself in, with six managers in his four seasons, and he is remembered almost as fondly as ‘Macca’ among Madridistas.
For Owen, the move didn’t always seem to be for the right reasons, with the forward declaring years later that it had initially been more about proving wrong his Liverpool team-mate Jamie Carragher, who said he’d never get in the starting XI ahead of Raul and Ronaldo.
But Owen did just that, and an example of what the English forward might have become if he’d stayed was provided by Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who joined Madrid the season after Owen left, usurped a slowing Ronaldo, scored nearly 50 times and picked up two La Liga titles.
If Woodgate is considered the least successful of the quartet – worse than that, in 2007 MARCA readers voted him La Liga’s worst signing of the century – then he was certainly beset by awful luck with injuries and, like Owen, decided against sticking it out in Madrid, something that haunts them both to this day.
The prospects of seeing a similarly large glut of Englishman at Real Madrid in the immediate future seem bleak.
Even clubs as large as Madrid have been stymied by the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, especially with a stadium renovation project to pay for. As a result, it is tough to compete with the wages on offer for elite English footballers in the Premier League.
And with Brexit now classing English players as non-EU there is a further obstacle. Lastly, Spain and England still seem a long way apart in a footballing and cultural sense.
Moving from England to Spain is not simply about the usual challenges of getting to know a new team, but also learning a fundamentally different stylistic approach to the game, as well as playing in alien weather conditions and often much later at night.
Kieran Trippier may have thrived at Atletico Madrid but they are about as English a team as you will find in Spain, and his spell abroad did not convince any of his countrymen to take the same step.
It seems, then, that new visions of Englishman in white aren’t on the horizon.
All the more reason to reflect on the special moments McManaman, Beckham, Owen and Woodgate produced when they rocked up at the Bernabeu.
This is the third in a three-part series telling the story of the four English players who went to Real Madrid in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For the first instalment tracing the early success of McManaman and Beckham’s glorious arrival, click here. For the second part on how Owen and Beckham linked up to down Barcelona in 2004-05, click here.