This story could start with Jonathan Woodgate’s words the day he played his first game for Real Madrid, only the words he used then can’t be used here, in a family publication. Down under the main stand at the Santiago Bernabeu, a little while after that meeting with Athletic Club in September 2005, there were expletives everywhere as the English defender was still trying to work out what on earth had happened, and not without reason.

“What a debut!” he said, which was at least a line that could be published. Which was true, too. Having arrived in August 2004 with an injury that got worse, not better, Woodgate had waited 516 days to actually play for Madrid. Within 25 minutes, he had produced an unintentionally superb diving header to send the ball flying past Iker Casillas and into his own net. On 44, he picked up a yellow card, one mantra going round his mind: “don’t get another yellow, don’t get another yellow, don’t get another yellow.” And on 66, he got another one. Scoring and own goal and getting sent off: it was some a way to start.

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Woodgate only played nine more LaLiga games for Madrid before returning to England. And so the legend that English players can’t cut it in Spain rolled on; recently, with Jude Bellingham’s arrival, it has rolled back in again. It is time to put it right.

It was the English who first brought football to Spain, one teammate from the opening days of Madrid’s existence describing a certain Arthur Johnson as “the only one who knows what he is doing, a man who takes football very seriously; so much so that he got married on a Saturday and came to play the following morning.” Johnson even published instructions on the game in the local press designed, among other things, to speed the game up, having got so exasperated that too much time was spent chatting and smoking. But if the English were the experts then, that’s not the case now.

When Bellingham touched down in Madrid recently, he became the sixth Englishman (and the seventh Briton) to play for the club since the foundation of LaLiga in 1929 and the first since Woodgate and Michael Owen joined David Beckham at the club 19 years ago. His arrival also saw a dusting off of that old trope — the one that says English footballers don’t succeed in Spain, that you’re better off not touching them — and a discussion of the reasons why. Amid the excitement, the only reason some could come up with to doubt the midfielder from Stourbridge seemed to be, well, the fact that he’s from Stourbridge. In one amusingly curt interview to address that issue, former Madrid and England manager Fabio Capello claimed that English players lack joy.

All of which would be fine, if it was entirely true.

British players may not always have travelled that well; more significantly, for economic reasons, they haven’t always travelled that much at all, although there was a flurry of signings in the mid-1980s. Some of them have made a huge impact, celebrated as stars, the legacy a lasting one: but there is no Hristo Stoichkov or Luka Modric, Michael Laudrup or Predrag Mijatovic. In large part, perhaps, because they haven’t always lasted long, still less felt like Spain was the place they belonged.

The thing that most stands out might be the fact that so few Brits seemed to stay for more than a few seasons, if they even lasted that long; even fewer stayed after they retired. All of which changes the way they are remembered.

And yet allegations of failure are flawed. The last Englishman to come did win the league, and nor is Kieran Trippier alone in that achievement. Gary Lineker was Barcelona‘s top scorer — until Cruyff came along and stuck him on the wing. Vinny Samways might have been sent off on his debut, but was loved in Las Palmas. John Aldridge, the Liverpool-born Republic of Ireland international who became Real Sociedad‘s first foreign signing in 30 years, was a revelation, genuinely transformative. And another Ireland international who was born and raised in England, Michael Robinson, became perhaps the most beloved man of any nationality in the whole country.

As for the Madrid players, Laurie Cunningham won a league title, played at Sporting Gijon and Rayo Vallecano, and built a life in Spain before his tragic death in a traffic accident in 1989; his son Sergio still lives in the city. “Some players are born under a star, others are born crashed to earth,” said Madrid’s president Luis de Carlos after Cunningham passed away. And yet while a broken toe was the beginning of his injury problems, this was still the man who was handed a standing ovation during one Clasico — by the Barcelona fans.

Beckham scored 126 seconds into his debut and eventually departed with the league title in 2007, his career in Spain bookended by two superb six-month periods. Owen, although he only lasted a year and seemed to have decided as much too soon, had a better goals per minute ratio than anyone else. And Woodgate, in that brief spell that he did appear amid injuries made worse by the club’s management of them, pressured to play ahead of time, showed glimpses of the player he might have been. One teammate back then even insisted he was actually their best defender: better than Sergio Ramos.

And then there’s Steve McManaman, who signed from Liverpool in 1999. By the time he had gone again, he went with two league titles, two European Cups, a choice vocabulary, and loads of friends, meteorites made. In the first of those, 3-0 against Valencia in Paris, it is no exaggeration to say that he was the best player on the pitch, scorer of a brilliant volley. Not as brilliant though as the one he smashed in against Oviedo, though.

Aided by Santi Solari — a fluent English speaker — McManaman settled swiftly, found his place. And that mattered almost as much as the football, maybe even more so. In the end, it’s about the experience, about living it.

Which is why notions of success sometimes have to be redefined but also why, in truth, it can feel like too many Brits didn’t find their place here. It may be part of why Gareth Bale is not always embraced the way he perhaps should be. As if the injuries, the absences, that feeling of distance, the refusal to play along, to pander to anyone, that “Wales, Golf, Madrid” flag — a phrase he never actually said — weighs more than all he won. And, boy, did he win a lot. There was a line not long ago that suggested that Eden Hazard was becoming like Bale; that he was halfway there. It wasn’t meant as a compliment; it was also laughable. Hazard could only dream of achieving half of what Bale did.

But there was something else, beyond the pitch, which is why Robinson may just be the greatest success of all those to come from the UK; why, despite the goals, it didn’t feel right for Owen, stuck in a hotel with a small baby and the lights out, and why it did feel right for Woodgate, who learned the language and embraced the experience, becoming popular with teammates. Who, while it was hard — secretly forced back under the knife — could laugh about it then, even about that day it all went wrong, and who still can now. It’s not just the football. “One-hundred percent,” says Woodgate.

Sure Woodgate wanted to play, sure there was always regret and pain too, but there was something he took with him. For him, injury also became an obligation and an opportunity: it gave him time, freedom, and immersion, the need to be understood and the chance to speak it. Working closely with physios as well as teammates daily, he learned Spanish swiftly. Some days he would take the car and just drive, see where it took him, not turning the satellite navigation on again until it was time to come home. If there was an offer, he always took it up. If there was a joke, he was always in on it. Even if he didn’t entirely get it.

“My advice to a player coming to Spain would be try to learn the language as fast as possible and fit into the culture by always trying to make the effort,” Woodgate says. “As long as you try, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes: they don’t mind.”

McManaman would agree. Things are different now, sure, but there are lessons there, paths to follow and it’s not really about the football — although you’d better be good at that too. If there’s one suggestion McManaman would offer Bellingham, it is get your home sorted straight away.

“It goes without saying that you should learn the language although now you have people to translate, to pay your bills, to do your washing, to look after everything for you, and there are lots of English-speaking players. But the big thing is what happens after training, that you have a home to go to, for you and your family. Get it done quick, get your clothes hung up, your shoes out, stroll, see the place,” says McManaman.

Sometimes it is as simple as enjoying it. You play for Madrid; you have to live it, too.

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Bellingham’s Madrid success depends on absorbing the culture