By the summer of 2004, two English players had proved themselves more than useful in the white of Real Madrid.
First, Steve McManaman had helped Los Blancos back to the very top of European football, winning two European Cups – the first in 2000, the second two years later.
Then David Beckham had arrived in 2003, replacing Macca and bringing with him not only the star power that everyone had expected but the footballing ability some didn’t observers believed he didn’t have enough of to succeed at the Bernabeu.
Their success, which was documented in the first article of this three-part series on Real Madrid’s English era, had president Florentino Perez interested in bringing across more recruits from the Premier League.
Still, it was a surprise to see the identity of the players that joined Beckham at the Bernabeu during the summer transfer window of 2004.
The new arrivals
First through the door was Michael Owen.
As an adopted scouser who had come up through the ranks at Liverpool, his departure from Anfield was unexpected.
But six months of on-off contract negotiations hinted at some unease, and when Madrid made contact with Owen’s agent while the 24-year-old was on the Reds’ pre-season tour of America, a concrete avenue away opened up.
Owen later revealed he hadn’t known “whether to laugh or cry” when he got the news, and though he experienced some indecision, he eventually committed to becoming Real’s latest galactico.
If Owen’s transfer ultimately made sense for all parties – Real got a prolific back-up to Raul and Ronaldo, Liverpool removed a high earner and Owen got to test himself in a new environment – then the announcement of Jonathan Woodgate’s signing from Newcastle United just days later raised far more eyebrows.
Indeed, one prominent English newspaper described the “astonishment” in Madrid at the £13.4 million deal, with Spanish reporters outside Madrid’s training ground desperately probing a smattering of their English counterparts for information.
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As became clear, the move for the injury-ridden 24-year-old had been pushed through on the say-so of new Blancos boss Jose Antonio Camacho, who had wanted someone to partner Walter Samuel at the heart of his defence.
And in the end, just one phone call to Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd was enough to convince him to allow Woodgate to join up with Beckham and Owen in Spain.
Suddenly, remarkably, that meant that at the start of the 2004-05 season, there were more English players in the Madrid squad than there were of any other nationality except Spanish.
Owen touched down on August 14, and at his unveiling he was presented with the No.11 shirt worn by club legend Paco Gento, who gave his own seal of approval to the 24-year-old.
“Owen is a monster, as a soccer player he has everything. He’s young, fast, a goalscorer, a hard worker and a winner,” Gento said.
The striker’s new boss was full of compliments too, suggesting a first-team spot was up for grabs.
“Owen will ensure that there is competition for places, and will generate concern within the squad in the expectation of playing,” Camacho said. “Naturally, it could be that someday Raul and Ronaldo will not be picked.”
It didn’t take long for Owen to get his first action in white as, on August 29, he came on for the injured Raul after just 24 minutes in his new side’s La Liga opener against Real Mallorca.
With Beckham also in the XI, that was the first time two English players had ever taken to the field for Real Madrid in a competitive fixture.
Not content with just getting on, Owen proceeded to set up the winning goal too, crossing for strike partner Ronaldo to chest home at the back post.
Yet if one Englishman was off to a good start, the same sadly couldn’t be said for Woodgate.
He was known to be nursing an injury at Newcastle United before joining Madrid, but having somehow passed his medical, he was expected to recover quickly and become a fixture in the backline alongside Samuel.
But even before Woodgate’s true condition started to become clear, Real had begun the campaign in crisis.
After just six matches in charge, Camacho tendered his resignation, claiming that he no longer had the support of the club’s galacticos.
In truth, his hiring had always seemed like a wrong turn, given he’d already had the job in 1998 but left after 23 days after falling out with then-president Lorenzo Sanz.
If he wasn’t managing the egos correctly off the pitch, then he wasn’t doing any better on the pitch either, with abysmal defeats to Espanyol and Bayer Leverkusen leading The Guardian’s Sid Lowe to describe him as having “all the tactical nous of a piece of plywood”.
After Perez had agreed for Camacho to go, assistant manager – and ex-Real keeper – Mariano Garcia Remon was promoted to the role of head coach.
But though Remon assuaged his president by generally playing an ultra-attacking formation that shoehorned in all the galacticos, he was unable to coax many better displays from what was a disparate, poorly functioning collective. Remon was sacked by December.
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By the time Vanderlei Luxemburgo had become Real’s third manager of the season shortly afterwards, Woodgate – who had now been on board four months – was no closer to fitness.
In fact, he was further away from it than ever, largely thanks to the desire of Perez to get his summer signing playing.
Against the advice of the club’s medics, Woodgate had been pressed into action in an October training match against the reserves, with a view to appearing in a friendly with a Spanish second division side.
But that latter encounter never took place, as the Teessider broke down in the training game. It was the last time he was seen on grass until the summer.
The English Clasico
As 2005 began, Real strung together two separate sequences of seven consecutive La Liga wins to keep the pressure on league-leaders Barcelona.
The second of those sequences contained the memorable 4-2 home Clasico win over their old rivals that was the high point of Real’s season – and Beckham and Owen’s too.
Beckham assisted Ronaldo with a terrific free-kick to make it 2-0 in the first half, before setting up Owen – who had been given a starting berth – with a delightful through-ball just after the hour, which his countryman finished with aplomb under Victor Valdes.
Afterwards, the praise rained in for Beckham in particular, with MARCA describing his man-of-the-match performance as “marvellous, brilliant, extraordinary, with passes worthy of a maestro and a physical display out of the ordinary.”
If it was the best of Beckham, it also looked to be validation for Owen’s persistence, who, despite his positive start, had been managing a number of off-field issues.
Chief among them was living in a hotel room with his wife and young daughter for months on end. The next was convincing team-mates and fans that he was worthy of being a galactico. But perhaps hardest of all was trying to swim against a tide of institutional favouritism that saw skipper Raul give him the cold shoulder on and off the pitch.
The close bond that one might have expected to form between him and Beckham never materialised either.
The pair barely met up with each other outside training, with Owen’s explanation in his autobiography ‘Reboot: My Life, My Time’ neatly summing up why his more extravagant countryman was considered a galactico and he wasn’t.
“As much as we ended up living close to David and Victoria and were two English families living abroad in the same city, there wasn’t much in the way of social life as far as them and us were concerned,” Owen said.
“Given that both Louise and Victoria were quite lonely and both looking after young kids, they’d occasionally see each other while we were training. That was the extent of the friendship, however.
“This perhaps wasn’t a surprise given that, by the time we found ourselves in Madrid together, David and I had even less in common than we ever had.
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“I certainly didn’t like wearing the trendy gear or mingling among socialite company. David and Victoria, on the other hand, were both bona fide superstars in their own right. They were operating on a completely different stratosphere from a social perspective.
“I never once got the impression I was on the inner circle of David’s group of friends.”
Despite his cold relationship with his compatriot Owen finally seemed in a better place after finally finding a home in La Moraleja, to the north of the city. He said at the time: “It’s no coincidence that things are falling into place off the pitch and my performances are improving.
“However nice a hotel is, it’s not easy to be in a single room with a small child every day. I knew it was going to be difficult, but you’ve got to bite your lip and get through it.”
If Owen was slow to integrate, the more gregarious Woodgate was making a fine fist of learning Spanish, with one team-mate saying that Woodgate “sounds like he’s from bloody Malaga.”
It was probably something to do with all that downtime.
Hard times, in this crazy town
In the end, despite Owen’s and Beckham’s significant on-pitch contributions, crucial defeats in domestic and European cups were to undermine Real’s 2004-05 campaign.
First, they crashed out of the Copa Del Rey in the round of 16, before being knocked out of the Champions League at the same juncture by Juventus.
And then with Barcelona within range in the league, Los Blancos could only muster two disappointing draws in May – first against Sevilla, then Real Sociedad – which saw them slip back and hand the title to the Blaugrana.
If Luxemburgo somehow survived being culled despite his team finishing trophyless then Owen was voluntarily taking steps towards the exit door.
He’d found the back of the net 16 times in 45 appearances and could also lay claim to having the best minutes-to-goals ratio in La Liga.
Yet his conversations with England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson were playing into his thoughts, in particular whether he could afford to spend another season on the bench with the 2006 World Cup on the horizon.
Real’s swoop for Robinho and Julio Baptista – countrymen of Luxemburgo – did little to reassure Owen that he would be given opportunities in the season to come.
With Perez and co. keen to ship Owen out to fund a big-money move for Sevilla centre-back Sergio Ramos and Owen’s wife hankering after a move back to England, it came as no shock that the 25-year-old decided to leave after one season.
His destination boiled down to a shoot-out between Newcastle United and Liverpool.
As it happened, Rafa Benitez – then in charge at Anfield – deemed Owen too expensive. The England forward made his way to Tyneside for £17million, where he would link up with fellow ex-Liverpool great Graeme Souness.
On leaving Spain, it was difficult to brand Owen a success or a failure – instead, it was perhaps just easier to say that he’d had some excellent moments, but just not enough of them.
The Madridistas had warmed to his goalscoring ability and work ethic, and some were able to accept the difficulties he’d had in trying to establish himself under three different managers.
For his part, Owen was to admit after his retirement from football that Madrid had been a “brilliant city” and that he’d regretted leaving when he did, instead wishing that he’d stayed to fully prove himself in white.
Ultimately though, he had never totally fitted in at a club where image and marketability were must-haves. He was clearly uncomfortable with the media scrutiny, which was made clear at his presentation, where he struggled to manage more than one keepy-up.
This is the second 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. You can find the first instalment here. Stay tuned to Planet Football for the third, which features a healthy dollop of Woodgate and a fair bit more Becks. You can never have too much Becks.