In the entirety of Real Madrid’s 118 year history, only six British players have donned the white shirt. Let’s take a look back and examine who among the six players have been the most influential:
6. Jonathan Woodgate
Fee: €15 million
Seasons: 2004 - 2006
Goals / Assists: 1 goal / 0 assists
Jonathan Woodgate was one of the surprise signings for the 2004 - 2005 season. The Englishman was brought in to help bolster Madrid’s back-line. The center back position was one lacking depth - with Hierro departed, and well past his prime for a number of years, Madrid had looked to the Cantera for reinforcements. Paco Pavon and Alvaro Mejia had been thrust into the spotlight during the Galactico era, but were far from the level once exuded by legends like Hierro and Sanchis.
Despite arriving in Madrid and somehow passing his medical in August of 2004, Woodgate did not make his debut until September of 2005. The Englishmen’s entire career at Madrid was ravaged by injuries. His debut came 13 months after his presentation! Few have had a debut quite as memorable as Jonathon Woodgate for Real Madrid, it was arguably the worst debut of any individual in European football history.
After back to back defeats, then Real Madrid coach Luxemburgo decided to rotate both center backs and give Woodgate his debut at home vs Athletic Bilbao. Within the opening 30 minutes, Woodgate had scored an own goal. Some 30 minutes later, he received a second yellow and was sent off. Less than 66 minutes into his debut and Woodgate was walking off the pitch.
Woodgate was a phenomenal defender when fit, the problem was that he rarely could stay fit. Over his two seasons at the club, he could only muster 14 appearances. The center back will always be remembered for his debut, but can also take a positive from his lone goal at the Bernabeu vs Rosenborg in the Champions League.
5. Michael Owen
Fee: €9 million
Seasons: 2004 - 2005
Goals / Assists: 16 goals / 4 assists
In the same summer that Jonathon Woodgate joined Real Madrid, his compatriot, Michael Owen also joined Los Blancos. The 2001 Balon d’Or winner was presented with the #11 and was the latest Galactico to join Florentino Perez’s ranks. Despite a plethora of attacking talent, including Raul and Ronaldo Nazario in the striker position, Owen was signed and would have the opportunity to play with Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, and of course his England teammate, David Beckham.
With Raul and Ronaldo often given the starting nod up front, Owen was relegated to the bench and had a slow start to life in Madrid. His first goal arrived in October 2004, a game-winner, in the Champions League vs Dynamo Kyiv. Despite being thrown in and out of the line-up, Owen ended the 2004-2005 season with the highest ratio of goals scored vs numbers of minutes played in La Liga. The Englishmen had 13 goals in la Liga, 1 in the Champions League, and 2 in the Copa Del Rey.
Owen was a quality player and his goal-scoring numbers were superb given his distribution of minutes. His most memorable moment came in a 4-2 victory over Barcelona where Owen scored the fourth goal. Unfortunately, the Englishmen never fully settled in Madrid and admitted as much in his book, ‘Reboot: My Life, My Time’. “As strange and perhaps defeatist as this might sound, almost as soon as we arrived in Spain, I instinctively had this sense that my time there was going to be short,” he wrote. He and his family lived in a hotel for a number of months and despite compatriots in Woodgate and Beckham, Owens struggled to connect on a personal level with the rest of the team.
4. David Beckham
Fee: €35 million
Seasons: 2003 - 2007
Goals / Assists: 20 goals / 59 assists
The English legend signed for Real Madrid from Manchester United in the summer of 2003. The media coverage was in over-drive. David Beckham was, and still is, more than a football player. David Beckham is a global icon. His Real Madrid presentation was a world event drawing viewers from countries all across the world and specifically coordinated to reach fans in Asia. With Beckham’s iconic number 7 shirt taken by club captain Raul, he opted for the number 23 referencing the great Michael Jordan as inspiration behind the decision.
Despite only winning two trophies during his four seasons at the club, Beckham was adored by the Madrid faithful. His work ethic, professional attitude, love of the city and club, effort to learn the language, and the positive relationships he developed with teammates like Ronaldo, Zidane, Casillas and Roberto Carlos all left a positive impression. He scored on his debut in La Liga, a header, and went on to contribute with 20 goals and 59 assists across all competitions.
Beckham’s best season was arguably his last in 2006-2007. After being ostracized by then manager Fabio Capello he was brought back into the squad around January when the team were struggling and more than 6 points off league leader Barcelona. Beckham curled in one of his emblematic free-kicks vs Real Sociedad on his return to the team and was instrumental in the dramatic turn-around which saw Madrid win their first La Liga title since the 2002-2003 season, just prior to Beckham’s arrival. Ramon Calderon and the Madrid board tried to convince Beckham to stay after his late season heroics, but a contract with LA Galaxy was signed and Beckham was a man of his word.
3. Steve McManaman
Fee: €35 million
Seasons: 1999 - 2003
Goals / Assists: 14 goals / 59 assists
One could argue that David Beckham was a more talented player than Steve McManaman, but there is no comparing the trophy cabinet of two during their four year spells. McManaman won the Champions League twice, including a goal in the final during his first season over Valencia to secure the club’s eighth European title. Not only did he raise the the big-eared trophy twice, but his accolades included two league titles, a Supercopa de España, a European Supercup and an Intercontinental Cup.
After allowing his contract to expire with Liverpool in the summer of 1999, the Englishman decided to ply his trade abroad. McManaman was primarily a right winger, but ended up playing many of his games on the left for Real Madrid or even in the middle of the park. He was a versatile player willing to put in the defensive work and make the necessary sacrifice to allow some of his teammates like Ronaldo, Figo, and Zidane more attacking freedom.
McManaman was beloved by fans, media, and his Real Madrid teammates. An anecdote from Michel Salgado, saw the former Spanish right back reminisce on McManaman’s arrival at pre-season camp. The Englishman forced himself to play cards with the Spanish contingent, eat lunch with them, and try to adapt and acclimatize to his new team as quickly as possible. It was a testament to McManaman’s character his and his desire to succeed abroad.
2. Laurie Cunningham
Fee: €1 million
Goals / Assists: 20 goals
The first Englishmen to ever play for Real Madrid was Laurie Cunningham, who signed for the club after two incredible seasons with West Brom. The 1 million euro transfer fee was the biggest in Madrid’s history in the summer of 1979. Real Madrid’s official website described his play below:
“An elegant, skillful and pacy forward. He was lethal in one-on-one situations and could play well in any attacking position. He had also had a very accurate shot with this left foot and great ball control” - Real Madrid’s Official Website on Laurie Cunnigham
Laurie Cunningham is the only Real Madrid player to have received an ovation from the Camp Nou crowd - that fact still holds true today. It is a statement which reveals the quality that Cunningham possessed. In February of 1980, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-0 in the Camp Nou, and not a single Barcelona player could handle Cunnigham. His speed was electric and finishing too clinical.
His trophy cabinet possessed one La Liga title and two Spanish cups. Like some of his British Real Madrid counterparts, much of his career in Madrid was marred by injuries. After initially breaking his toe, it soon became one injury after the other which kept him off the field. He was part of the team that lost to Liverpool in the 1981 European Cup final. Cunningham forced himself to play that match, but was not fit after recovering from a long-term injury.
Cunningham’s story sadly ends in tragedy. The former Madrid player was killed in a car crash on the 15th of July 1989 at the age of 33. He was still playing and in hopes of renewing his contract with Rayo Vallecano. “He never had the luck he deserved,” Real Madrid legend Juanito had said about his former teammate.
1. Gareth Bale
Fee: €100 million
Seasons: 2013 - Present
Goals / Assists: 105 goals / 67 assists
Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid aged 24 and having set the Premier League alight for the previous two seasons while at Tottenham Hotspur. He arrived for a record-breaking 100 million euros, though many reports had a smaller figure posted in a bid to keep Cristiano Ronaldo happy. His first season at the club has arguably been his best. He contributed with 22 goals and 19 assists in 44 games including the game-winner in both the Copa Del Rey final and the UEFA Champions League final vs eternal cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. Bale’s speed was jaw dropping and he helped form part of the tantalizing attacking trident of Bale-Benzema-Cristiano, otherwise known as the “BBC”.
In 2015-2016, another season which could vie for Bale’s best in a Madrid shirt, he helped lead the team to their 11th Champions League title and come within 1 point of securing La Liga. Injuries only allowed him to play 31 games, but he still produced incredible numbers — 19 goals and 14 assists.
Similar to Woodgate and Cunningham, his British predecessors, the Welshman has struggled to stay fit and the injuries have mounted over the years. Bale has missed over 70 games through injury, more than a full season worth of games. It has left many Madrid fans questioning what his true potential could have been without the constant nagging injuries.
After scoring a game-winning bicycle kick in Real Madrid’s 13th Champions League triumph, Bale’s Real Madrid career has spiraled negatively. Injuries, form, attitude, drama, controversy, media campaigns — they have all come together over the last 18 months to likely bring an end to a fantastic career in Madrid.
Despite the drama of the last 18 months, Gareth Bale has already cemented his legacy at Real Madrid and will go down as a legend of the club. He ranks as the best British player to ever play for the club and justified his hefty price-tag. Four Champions League trophies would be enough for most players, but that’s just the start of his accolades with the club: 1 Copa Del Rey, 1 La Liga title, 2 Spanish Super Cups, 3 European Super Cups, and 4 World Clup Championships.