Off the Ball

Dream debuts and nightmare starts

Wayne Rooney celebrates scoring a hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his Manchester United debut in September 2004.
© Getty Images

As the old adage goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Nowhere is this truer than in football, where debuts are rarely forgotten and can either offer a platform to success or a first step on the road to failure. And while few players forget their first appearance for club or country, some are more memorable than others, as discovered.

First, you have the lucky ones; the players who set such an impressive standard that it would seem almost impossible to follow. One celebrated example is that of Zinedine Zidane. The great 'Zizou' was just an emerging young midfielder with Bordeaux when he made his France debut in August 1994, and with Les Bleus 2-0 down to Czech Republic, his early contributions as a substitute did not auger well.

“I started very badly,” he recalled, “with a free-kick I completely missed, then two or three missed passes that even a grandfather would have made!” To say it improved thereafter would be something of an understatement. The 22-year-old went on to rescue a draw with the first brace of his career, the first a stunning left-foot piledriver and the second a towering header.

Just as Zidane’s international bow hinted at the feats that would follow, so Real Madrid fans glimpsed a legend in waiting when Emilio Butragueno made his first appearance in February 1984. Fittingly, it was Alfredo Di Stefano who spotted the 20-year-old’s potential, and his faith was rewarded when the young substitute turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win with two goals and an assist.

Wayne Rooney is another who left little room for improvement, marking his Manchester United debut in 2004 by becoming the youngest player to score a UEFA Champions League hat-trick as Fenerbahce were crushed 6-2. Yet, at 18, Rooney was a relative veteran when compared to the child-like Javier Saviola, who made his River Plate bow in October 1998. Still just 16, and with only a couple of senior training sessions under his belt, '*El Conejo' *was still in shock at finding himself among the substitutes, so his reaction at making a goalscoring impact was a predictable mix of joy and disbelief.

I started very badly with a free-kick I completely missed, then two or three missed passes that even a grandfather would have made!

"Just to be on bench was amazing,” he recalled. “I had to check that my name was on the board three times to believe that it was true. My family were worried because I wasn't home as early as usual, but when I finally arrived and told them the good news, we all cried together.”

While Saviola would initially have been a source of curiosity to most onlookers, other players make their debuts with expectation – and often a hefty fee – weighing heavily. One such example was Tony Cottee, who took to the field as an Everton player for the first time in 1988 under pressure to justify his £2m price-tag and status as Britain’s most expensive footballer. As it transpired, it took the young Londoner just 34 seconds to do so with the first of three goals in a 4-0 win over Newcastle United.

More recently, Giampaolo Pazzini wasted little time in beginning to repay Inter Milan’s €12m outlay, scoring twice and winning a late penalty just two days after signing to inspire a memorable 3-2 comeback win over Palermo. "I could not have dreamed of a better debut,” he later conceded. When it comes to making an instant impact, however, surely no-one can compete with Isidro Langara. A veteran of the 1934 FIFA World Cup™, the Spaniard emigrated to Argentina after the Spanish Civil War in 1939, and embarked for his new home by way of a long and uncomfortable boat journey.

He had barely set foot on dry land, however, before representatives from San Lorenzo, tipped off to his arrival, somehow convinced him to play for them against River Plate... later that same afternoon! Though unsurprisingly rusty and out of shape, Langara inspired a 4-2 win, scoring all four of his team’s goals in the space of 28 minutes, and went on to rack up over a hundred more during a glittering Ciclón career.

Other debuts are memorable for very different reasons. Marco van Basten and Eidur Gudjohnsen were never likely to forget their first Ajax and Iceland appearances because of who they replaced: the former coming on for his hero, Johan Cruyff, and the latter substituting Arnor Gudjohnsen, his father.

There are some players who make excelling on their debuts a habit, with Jimmy Greaves famously scoring in his first appearance for all four of his top-flight clubs – Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, AC Milan and West Ham United – and doing likewise for England. Alan Shearer was just as impressive, marking his full debut at Southampton by becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in English football – breaking Greaves’ record – before going on to find the net in his opening appearances for both Blackburn Rovers and the Three Lions.

Yet not all impressive debuts provide a precursor for great things. Fabrizio Ravanelli, for example, scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in his first Middlesbrough appearance only for the season to end in relegation for the team and a swift exit for the Italian. Similarly, Alvaro Recoba never managed to reach the heights scaled on his Inter Milan bow, when he famously upstaged fellow debutant Ronaldo by scoring two sensational goals in the final ten minutes to help his new team come from behind against Brescia.

While these players squandered early good will, others endured debuts so disastrous that they were difficult to recover from. Who can forget Jonathan Woodgate, having waited over a year for his injury-delayed Real Madrid bow, marking the occasion with an own goal and a red card? Not the player himself, certainly, who could only muse afterwards: “I’m in shock”. Alekansdr Zavarov, tipped as the heir apparent to Michel Platini at Juventus, also wilted under expectation on his Bianconeri debut, deflecting a free-kick past his own keeper, then losing his balance, falling and injuring himself during a botched dribble.

This was definitely not the game I was dreaming of.

You can be too fired up for your first appearance, and this certainly seemed to be the problem for Arsenal’s Jason Crowe. Having waited years for his debut, Crowe’s determination to make his mark manifested itself in a dangerous early tackle on Birmingham City’s Martin O’Connor. The red card that followed was timed at just 33 seconds – one of the fastest in English football history – and the youngster would play just twice more for the Gunners before being moved on.

Yet if you think Crowe was unfortunate, spare a thought for poor Stanley Milton. His first appearance proved unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, with the Halifax keeper the hapless last line of defence in a crushing 13-0 defeat that remains an English league record to this day.

Fortunately, not every disastrous debut leads to a disappointing career. Manchester United’s Patrice Evra was hauled off at half-time on his, having been tormented by Trevor Sinclair in a 3-1 win for Manchester City, but has since gone on to become one of the world’s top left-backs. Henrik Larsson, for his part, was greeted with headlines of ‘Dread Loss’ when his first touch as a Celtic player provided the assist for Chic Charnley to secure a 2-1 win for Hibernian. Although the Swede followed up that gaffe with an own goal in his European debut, he steadily established himself as one of the Bhoys’ all-time greats, scoring 174 times over a sparkling seven-year stint.

Lilian Thuram, too, recovered from being conned on his Monaco debut, gifting a goal to Metz with an ill-advised back-pass after reacting to a shout from the cheeky goalscorer, Francois Calderaro, to “give it to the keeper!” And not even the game’s most iconic stars have been immune to fluffing their lines. Johan Cruyff was sent off on his international debut, while the same fate befell Lionel Messi, for whom an arm in the face of Hungary defender Vilmos Vanczak earned him a red card just 40 seconds after coming off the bench. No-one needed the Barcelona star to admit afterwards: "This was definitely not the game I was dreaming of.”

It’s unlikely he will ever forget his debut either, although Messi - like Cruyff and others before him - has at least been able to prove that first impressions don’t always count.

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