Not forgetting the misfortunes of Jonathan Woodgate at the Santiago Bernabeu, who made only nine appearances over an injury plagued three years.
Although others have come from the Premier League in more recent times it was Laurie Cunningham who broke the mould in 1979 arriving for a record fee at the time of just under one million pounds. The winger having established himself as part of Ron Atkinson's new breed at West Bromwich Albion - laden with talent - such as Cyril Regis and Brendan Batson. Yet it was a stunning performance in the UEFA Cup against Valencia at The Hawthorns that same year - televised all over Spain by terrestrial TV in those days – that made Cunningham a hot property for Real Madrid. As the Valencia team was the home of the 1978 World cup winner Mario Kempes of Argentina and 1974 German World Champion, Rainer Bonhof.
As the first black player to play for England in a competitive fixture, Cunningham’s arrival to Madrid was much heralded and in doing so he also became the first English player to join the club – making a dream start by winning the double in his first season.
Although much loved at Real Madrid the move damaged his England career as Ron Greenwood was often unable to secure the Englishman's release. Even in the build-up to the 1982 World Cup, due to contractual issues of the day when FIFA wielded less authority. Then an injury in the 1980 season started a series of setbacks that were to shorten his days as a first team player and caused him to spend loan periods at a number of other clubs - including Manchester United - where he was reunited with his mentor, Ron Atkinson.
In 1989 further tragedy struck when Cunningham died in a car crash in Madrid aged only 33.
These days though the transfer of English or Irish players to La Liga is perhaps less novelty than back in the 1980’s, especially following the move of Steve McManaman. Who surprised many in 1999 with his decision.
In many ways McManaman was the first to establish himself on the national stage in Spain leaving a legacy that will be very tough for even Gareth Bale to beat. Even amidst all the managerial change that took place within months of MacManaman’s arrival, which saw Vicente Del Bosque replace Welshman John Toshack, the midfielder still claimed a place in the team. Becoming the scorer of that key goal when Real Madrid won the 2000 UEFA Champions League final in Paris against Valencia.
But he also had his darker days when he was clearly told he was surplus to requirements, yet maintained his focus to eventually reclaim his place in the tea. Scoring a vital goal as a sub in the 2002 semi-final against Barcelona at the Camp Nou - a place where they had not won in six years at the that time. Which the guaranteed him a squad place at the Champions League final in Glasgow at Hampden Park. His cameo as a sub for Luis Figo securing a second medal and Real Madrid’s last time to lift the trophy.
However his fairy-tale move from England far exceeded the experiences of the other big names that had preceded him to Spain. Including Mark Hughes, who had a mixed time at Barcelona after terry Venables left the club. Or BBC Sport’s pundit Gary Lineker who made some impact at Barcelona when Venables was manager but then fell out with Johan Cruyff who was up until recent times Mr Barca. Indeed, Steve Archibald was the most successful English player in the eighties following his move from Tottenham Hotspur emerging as top scorer in La Liga in his first season at Barcelona making him a favourite at Camp Nou – where is still very fondly remembered today.
For Republic of Ireland players, the most recent from the Premier League was Steve Finnan, and his predecessor Ian Harte who left Elland Road to join Levante when the English club had to sell off players to make some cash. In 2004 Levante were in the Second Division and their manager Bernd Schuster, secured promotion and for two seasons Harte was part of the squad in the Primera Division. In 2007 Levante were relegated and he returned to England on a free transfer, joining Roy Keane’s Sunderland, with no medals in hand.
Two other Republic of Ireland stalwarts from Liverpool moved to La Liga in an earlier era the first being Michael Robinson, who went to Osasuna in 1987 and John Aldridge who went to Real Sociedad in 1989.
Despite only playing for a season at Anfield, Mick Robinson, moved to Spain to join his ex-Liverpool team-mate Sammy Lee - making 59 appearances for the club - and scoring 12 goals in total. In the end Injury shortened Robinson’s career and when he told the club he was not enforcing his contract helping him become a reluctant local hero for his generosity. His enthusiasm and acceptance of the “Spanish Way” in Osasuna not only made him a local favourite but it also opened up a media career that still continues today.
The connection between the Republic of Ireland and Osasuna continued some years later when former Bohemians defender Ashley Grimes went to Spain, ending his playing career at the club in 1989 - having won 18 caps for the Republic of Ireland and scoring one of those memorable goals against Spain in a Euro ‘84 qualifier at Lansdowne Road.
Aldridge’s move to San Sebastian came while he was still gathering his 69 caps for Ireland and spent two seasons with Real Sociedad, a club in the Basque region that up to that time only selected Basque players. The club’s only link with Anfield was John Toshack, who had managed them to a Copa del Rey title in 1987 and a runners-up place in La Liga in 1988. During his two seasons at Sociedad Aldridge played 75 times and scored 40 goals. His decision to return to Tranmere Rovers in 1991 being personal as the incoming boss Toshack, who was asked to come back to the club once more, might have formed a strong partnership with the Irish man had he chosen to remain.
At Manchester United, following a glittering career at Old Trafford, Kevin Moran moved to Sporting Gijon in 1988 when Alex Ferguson let him go on a free transfer. During his two years in Spain Moran only made 33 appearances and never made an impact at Gijon despite remaining a key part of Jack Charlton’s Ireland squad, where he played in Italia ’90. In the end he also returned to England to join Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn and stayed for four seasons, just missing out on the Championship win of 1994 due to retirement.
But those moves from the Premier League to la Liga are still somewhat jinxed as Luka Modric could attest, as he struggled to earn a regular place in Jose Mourinho’s Madrid midfield alongside Mezut Ozil, Sammy Khedira and Xabi Alonso. A strong competitor during his last season at Spurs, the Croatian was looking to return to England, until the second leg of the Champions League clash with Manchester United when he fired a dramatic after coming on as a sub to earn a vital win.
Then in 2006 it was the turn of Ruud van Nistelrooy to leave United for a three-year contract with Real Madrid for about €24 million. All amortised when he proved a prolific goal scorer in the first year, where the Dutchman winning La Liga’s - Pichichi – or La Liga’s top scorer trophy. However just under two seasons later Van Nistelrooy suffered a partially torn meniscus in his right knee and was de-registered by the club for the season. Then in his comeback in 2009 he suffered another setback and eventually had to join Hamburg in 2010 where he revived his career somewhat, before returning to Malaga for his final year.
So it has to be said the signs are ominous for Bale, based on history, and regardless of the money involved. But so exceptional is his talent that he could be the one Premier League player to outdo the McManaman record. In doing so he would become the first Welsh player to join Madrid. Albeit not the first Welshman to arrive at the club.
John Benjamin Toshack already wrote that particular piece of history in 1989, winning La Liga to boot in his first season.
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