Laurie Cunningham, the first player to represent both Manchester United and Real Madrid, had an immeasurable impact in Spain. When you think of the legends that have donned the Los Blancos shirt down the years the names of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Raúl immediately come to mind. But only one will have left the Nou Camp to a standing ovation. That honour was bestowed upon Cunningham after a quite dazzling display in a 2-0 victory at the home of Madrid’s bitter rivals Barcelona. The son of a former Jamaican racehorse jockey from Holloway in north London, the forward’s meteoric rise had seen him become the first black player to wear an England shirt. However, his performance in the El Clásico was the pinnacle of his success. This year marked the 25th anniversary of that game and the Madrid newspaper AS ran the headline “The man who ran riot in the Nou Camp”. He amazed the great Madrid and tormented the mighty Barcelona that night and one Barça fan, who was there for the game, said: “It was like seeing Cruyff but with black skin. That kid could do anything with a football”. His life was tragically cut short in a car accident in Spain in July 1989, at just 33, but Cunningham will always be remembered as a magnificent success at the Bernabéu.
Steve McManaman is the most decorated player to have graced the foreign shores and success at Real Madrid enabled him to cement that title. If you pay a visit to the trophy room at the Bernabéu, there will be continuous footage of McManaman’s goal in the 2000 Champions League Final on display. Although somewhat undervalued during his time in England, the same cannot be said of his four-year spell at Madrid. The midfielder scored what was undoubtedly the goal of the game and in the process was named man-of-the-match in that historic win over Valencia. Two years later, he lifted the Champions League trophy for a second time and he added two La Liga titles in his time in Spain. Arguably, he is Britain’s most successful footballing export, perhaps a certain David Beckham would contest that, but his success off the field was just as impressive. British players have traditionally found it tricky to be a hit off the field as well as on it but McManaman won the respect of a squad that boasted the likes of Roberto Carlos, Raúl and Zidane. His significance was so great the then manager Vincente Del Bosque once asserted “McManaman kept the whole squad united”.
Tens year ago, a bleach blonde and pony-tailed David Beckham made his debut for Real Madrid in a 4-0 friendly win over China Dragons. A decade has passed and it appears Los Blancos are preparing to add another British star to their ranks in the form of Gareth Bale. However, Bale will have a tough time living up to the adoration that Beckham commanded when he moved to the capital. In his final season at the Bernabéu, Beckham played a significant role in ending Madrid’s four-year drought for a trophy when they won the league title. That was all he won at Real though. Built as the embodiment of the Galácticos project, Beckham was arguably signed for his image more so than his ability. Though he insisted throughout his time he wasn’t there to sell shirts, it was part of the reason Madrid forked out over £28m for his signature. He had come to play football though, and the former England captain quickly won the support of the supporters with his undoubted commitment and constant hard work. His obvious passing talent caught the eye of many but what really impressed them was his effort. He always put a foot in, made tackles and chased back. The ego that some Madrid fans had expected never came to fruition. He was polite, respectful and dignified and it was only right that he left Madrid on a high with the La Liga trophy in tow.
When Michael Owen made the move from Liverpool to Madrid he was given the legendary number 11 shirt – once worn by Alfredo di Stefano. But his single season at the Bernabéu was a bit of an odd one. Having won the coveted Ballon d’Or in 2001, Owen was at the height of his powers. He was one of the most potent and deadly finishers in front of goal but he found himself operating from the bench as Raúl and Ronaldo ensured they started ahead of the Englishman. Not many will have a bad word to say about Owen – shame the same can’t be said in England – after he scored 13 goals in 19 starts and did his job very well. Where he struggled was in the media spotlight and he failed to create an emotional connection with the Madrid supporters. He looked uncomfortable with the comparisons with his compatriot McManaman and he struggled in the shadows of Raul and Ronaldo. Had he possessed the good humour of McManaman or the fame of Beckham, he may have been able to adapt to his surroundings much better. However, a swift return to England was made and his sole season in Spain was one of an unfulfilled potential.
Possibly one of the worst signings of the millennium is how many have come to describe Jonathan Woodgate’s £13m move to Madrid. His disastrous first game will go down as one of the weirdest performances made by any debutant. Real Madrid had to wait over 500 days before they could catch a glimpse of their new signing, and what they got was a quite incredible diving header into the wrong net and a red card. His career at Madrid was blighted by injuries, which restricted him to just 14 appearances during his two-year stay. While many in Spain believed he could be the new Fernando Hierro, strong in the tackle and elegant on the ball, his time at Madrid was doomed to failure ever since that dreadful debut.
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