For many players a move to Real Madrid is the ultimate dream.
But for Jonathan Woodgate it turned out to be a something of a nightmare.
Arguably England’s most natural centre-back followed the path of Laurie Cunningham, Steve McManaman, David Beckham and Michael Owen to become the fifth Englishman to play for Los Blancos and his time in the Spanish capital has become the stuff of legend… but for all the wrong reasons.
Like signing a ghost
In many ways it feels like Real Madrid signed Woodgate twice. First in August of 2004 for £13.4million and second in September of 2005 when he made his infamous debut for the club over a year after putting pen to paper.
The 13 months in between had been spent on operating tables and in one-on-one physio sessions in which the phrase ‘slow and steady progress’ was translated from English to Spanish and back again.
Many of you would have answered the question in our headline with the thought ‘because he was always injured’ and that’s a fair assessment.
Woody’s muscle fibres tore as easily as tracing paper and his thigh in particular caused him great distress and frustration during his Madrid years.
Even after he had got over the worst of his injury troubles, the niggles persisted and condemned to an eternal state of 70% fit even when he made rare appearances for the first team.
The horror show
Woodgate has the unfortunate distinction of being able to lay claim to the ownership of the most high-profile disaster of a debut in history.
25 minutes into the game against Athletic Bilabo and the long-mopped centre-back was lying face down prone on the Bernabeu pitch. Seconds before his attempted header behind had deflected a probing cross past Iker Casillas and into Madrid’s net.
Then before the half-time whistle he was shown a yellow card for a rash lunge from behind, a distinctly un-Woodgate challenge, that could well have been a straight red.
He escaped and headed for the tunnel at the interval to regain his composure.
Then, midway through the second half, he was shown a second yellow for an indiscretion that would almost certainly have gone unpunished had he been playing for Leeds or Newcastle in the Premier League.
As he trudged off the pitch the Real Madrid fans gave him a sympathetic round of applause — they would have been less generous had Robinho and Raul not both scored minutes before.
He wasn’t to know it at the time but Woodgate’s debut would eventually represent his entire Madrid career in most fans’ memories.
You may be surprised to know that at the time Woodgate was the subject of much praise from Spanish journalists.
Few fell into the trap of judging him off 66 minutes of football alone and in his other 13 appearances for Los Blancos he exhibited his innate ability to defend.
One columnist wrote: “He is fantastic, a centre-back with something of Hierro about him. Strong in the challenge, elegant with the ball at his feet, powerful in the air.”
And that he was — just not often enough.
As time has passed sympathy for Woodgate and his ravaged body has given way to mockery.
In 2007, when Woody had moved to Spurs via Middlesbrough, he was voted La Liga’s worst buy of the century by readers of Marca.
The tragedy of it all
What must hurt Woodgate the most is that he was definitely good enough to play for Real Madrid but many of their fans will never know it.
At Leeds he had played alongside accomplished centre-backs Rio Ferdinand, Lucas Radebe and Dominic Matteo. And yet in many ways Woodgate was the best of them all, combining Ferdinand’s mobility and culture with Radebe’s physicality and timing, Matteo’s determination… he had it all.
It is not ridiculous to think that he may have achieved as much in the game as Ferdinand went on to with Man United.
His post-Madrid career featured more hours in the physio room but also the occasional masterclass.
Although you could never say that Madrid should have stuck by him, it would have only made their physio’s schedule busier.
Injuries robbed him of much of his career and denied us the pleasure of watching more of a very fine player who was born to defend.
He will always have the fact that the world’s biggest club deemed his worthy of them and that is something of which he should be immensely proud.