A self-confessed 'Northern lad', Woodgate may not have known just what he had let himself in for when he signed from Newcastle United FC for €22m in June 2004. As former Madrid centre-back Iván Campo said: "It's one thing to be a central defender, another entirely to be a central defender at Real Madrid." The 25-year-old had taken on one of the most testing jobs in the Primera División, his every move would be scrutinised by the most demanding fans in Spain.
In the case of Woodgate those fans would be made to wait before passing judgement. Woodgate spent his debut season recovering from a thigh muscle tear and did not play a game for his new employers. At least it gave him the chance to learn enough Spanish to communicate with his team-mates. He needed to; Woodgate had some explaining to do upon finally making his debut against Athletic Club Bilbao on 22 September.
In the 24th minute, the defender diverted a Joseba Etxeberria shot into his own net. Worse was to follow. On 66 minutes he was dismissed for a second yellow card. Madrid's fans sided with the Englishman, and 70,000 of them applauded enthusiastically as he trudged back to the dressing room. It was the most inauspicious of starts, but Madrid fans approved of what they had seen, particularly Woodgate's domination in the air - which has been an issue in the club's rearguard.
In his next appearance, a friendly against Real Zaragoza, Woodgate scored another own goal, but rather than get on the defender's back, Madrid's fans showed patience. Both players and fans have taken Woodgate's shaky start with a good dose of humour, recognising that beneath it all, he is a very talented player.
Fans describe Woodgate as 'un tío simpático' (a likeable bloke), and the way he has bounced back from 12 months of hardship has strengthened their bond with him. The cult status he has won was emphasised with his crucial headed equaliser against Rosenborg. Significantly, after scoring he raced to the touchline to hug club doctor Alfonso del Corral.
"It's good to get a goal in the right end," Woodgate told uefa.com. "It's been a bit hard. The games I have played, I haven't had the best of starts but hopefully I can turn it around a bit now.
I wasn't deliberately looking to score; I was just in the right place at the right time. I practise my heading quite a lot but mainly for defending, having said that, when Becks [David Beckham] is putting the balls in like he his, you can't really miss can you?"
Coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, Roberto Carlos and central defensive partner Iván Helguera have all recently expressed their belief in Woodgate. He has not taken long to repay that trust. "It's nice to hear they've got a lot of faith in me because I'm not a bad player," Woodgate said. "I haven't played for a while and I hope now I can start playing a bit more. Iván is a great player and has been a great help for me. He's a very funny lad as well, so he has been really good to me, but all the players have as well so I couldn't really single out any one person, they have all been brilliant with me."
Madrid's defence is usually outshone by their potent forward line. Fittingly, though, on the night Woodgate truly announced himself to the Bernabéu in Europe he was joined in the limelight by fellow goalscorer Helguera. "I like it when that happens," Woodgate said. "It gives a bit of glory to the centre halves."
Humour has helped Woodgate surmount many obstacles since he arrived in the Spanish capital, and he is clearly enjoying the moment. When asked whether the cold of Trondheim might have an adverse affect when Madrid visit Rosenborg next month, he laughed. "Cold? I'm from the North East. I won't get cold up there, I'll still be playing in my normal short-sleeved shirt! The Brazilians might not like it too much, they might wrap themselves in gloves and a hat and that but I'm used to it, I like the cold." Maybe, but the Bernabéu has quickly warmed to him.
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