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10 of football's most eventful (and amusing) debuts

Jonathan Woodgate
(Image credit: Getty)

From Sancho to Lukaku, Grealish to White and every new signing in between, all debuts are held up to the golden standard of first days at the office. The one, the only. The Woodgate. 

Super Jonathan took to the Bernabeu 17 months after arriving, thanks to injury but left after just 66 minutes, having produced a legendary performance for all the wrong reasons. A comical own goal was followed by two of the most needless yellow cards you could ever imagine, putting the Teessider's Galacticos bow in the history books as one of the worst debuts in living memory.

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Romelu Lukaku has a habit of scoring on his debuts, luckily. But both fellas have absolutely nothing on this lot, who all had a night to remember the first time they played for their respective teams. 

1. Don’t cry for the Flea, Argentina

“It wasn’t the way I dreamed it would be.” Well, no sh*t, Lionel.

It's easily forgotten that Messi exited the international stage just 47 seconds after making his senior bow in 2005. The 18-year-old substitute was shown the red card for allegedly elbowing Vilmos Vanczak, after the Hungarian defender had tugged the Flea’s shirt.

Little is known of what’s happened to the Argentine. He must have disappeared into obscurity.

2. Rioting ruins Barton’s big day

Warren Barton’s international debut lasted longer – but not much. England’s ‘friendly’ against the Republic of Ireland was supposed to be the Wimbledon right-back’s proudest moment – 20 members of his family had gone to Dublin to watch – but the match was abandoned after 27 minutes amid a flurry of missile throwing from so-called fans.

Barton’s chance to impress ahead of Euro '96 was gone and he failed to make the squad. Thanks, guys. 

3. Football when the lights go out

At least Barton was awarded a cap. No such reward for supposed debutants Jackie McNamara and Billy Dodds in 1996, following one of the most farcical episodes in international football history.

After Scotland’s game in Estonia was switched from an evening kick-off to 3pm over concerns about the Kadriog Stadium floodlights, the home team staged a no-show in protest. Craig Brown’s men kicked off regardless, 11 seconds later the final whistle was blown and Scotland were awarded a 3-0 win. A winning start for Dodds and McNamara – or so they thought.

FIFA ordered a rematch at a neutral venue, which ended 0-0.

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4. Seven reasons to sack your goalkeeper

“I need more time and experience. Maybe next time.” Unfortunately for Herman Rulander, there wouldn’t be a next time. Standing in for injured Dieter Burdenski against Eintracht Frankfurt, the 21-year-old keeper let in seven goals on his Werder Bremen debut in 1981 – one an own goal, scored by our hero himself – before being substituted by Otto Rehhagel.

Two weeks later, he was given a cheque for 50,000 Deutschmarks (about £11,000 then; about £37,000 now) and asked never to darken Werder's dressing room again.

5. Burnley’s Billy the Kid let off the hook

Not every debutant keeper is treated so harshly when he ships seven. In fact, after Burnley’s Billy O’Rourke left the pitch in tears after doing just that against QPR in 1979, the Burnley Express took pity on the 19-year-old and named him man of the match, instead blaming the defenders. Bless.

Luckily for posterity, if not for Billy, his big day was in front of the Match of the Day cameras. Note how Barry Davies slides into benign paternalistic despair as Burnley collapse – and see how much a young Glenn Roeder unselfconsciously delights in scoring that vital seventh goal. 

6. Ronan sees red on his swansong

Twice the age of Billy O’Rourke but just as likely to blub, Ronan Le Crom personifies the dangers of sentiment. His was an unspectacular career: he spent 11 years at Auxerre, playing just three games, before a wandering decade representing six French clubs.

At 38, he was the third-choice goalkeeper for PSG, and with his retirement imminent, he came off the bench in the final game of 2012/13 at Lorient to ensure he was eligible for a championship medal. Just 21 minutes later he was back off again, red-carded into retirement. Not that it mattered much: although makeshift goalkeeper Mamadou Sakho couldn’t save the penalty, PSG held on for a 3-1 win.

7. Beitar debutant breaks down barriers

Regardless of performance, few players can have made as big an impact on debut than Gabriel Kadiev. The 19-year-old became Beitar Jerusalem’s first ever Muslim player in February 2013, two days after the club’s offices were destroyed in a fire started by angry fans.

But as the Chechen midfielder entered the pitch in the 80th minute, boos were drowned out by cheers. ‘Violence and racism? Not on our field’ read one banner. Sometimes the good guys win.

8. Mint Eastwood

“We brought in Freddie to score goals and we’ve seen he can do that.” 

Southend boss Steve Tilson wasn’t kidding. It took Eastwood just 7.7 seconds to open his account for the Shrimpers in 2004, on his way to a hat-trick against Swansea. A month later the 21-year-old’s loan was made permanent, in which time (our maths tells us) he could have scored 336,623 goals if he’d kept up his early rate. 

9. Campbell’s County calamity

Sol Campbell was promised more big signings, such as famed duo “Roberto Carlos and Benjani”. Notts County expected Premier League performances in League Two. In the end, neither got either.

Just four days after a nightmare debut for the Magpies in 2009 – in which he misplaced a backpass after four seconds and was responsible for one of Morecambe’s goals in a 2-1 defeat – the Sol Man’s five-year contract was terminated by mutual discontent. "Sven still hasn’t said sorry for getting me involved. All he’s got to do is say sorry," the ex-defender huffed to FourFourTwo in 2014

10. “Right, who fancies going in nets?”

It should have been such a happy day. At the age of 24, Lee Yoon-eui was finally going to play his first 90 minutes as a professional footballer, in goal for Korean side Sangju Sangmu. The one problem? He was a full-back.

Sangmu are the team of the military, made up of Korean players undergoing their national service. That presumably guarantees a certain level of organisation, fitness and camaraderie; sadly for Lee, it also means they can't make any transfers, even when their goalkeepers are unavailable. 

Lee wasn't even the first-choice outfielder: he was the fourth to be tested between the sticks. Even so, he kept a clean sheet for 45 minutes and the army side went in 1-0 up – but in the second half the nerves kicked in, he conceded three and Sangju lost in the final minute. Disney have yet to announce a film adaptation.

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