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The Magnificent Seven: memorable debuts

Carmelo Anthony made his return to the Big Apple on Wednesday night, scoring 27 points in the Knicks’ win over Milwaukee. In Melo’s honour, here are seven other unforgettable debuts.

Image: BERNAT ARMANGUE/AP/Press Association Images

1. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

IT’S ALWAYS DIFFICULT to determine how footballers will react to a big money transfer. No matter how prolific they have been at previous clubs, once a hefty price tag is slapped on, the form book tends to go out the window.

As with most things, the situation becomes even more unpredictable when you introduce children to the situation. So, when Manchester United decided to splash out £25.6m to bring 18-year-old Wayne Rooney to Old Trafford in the summer of 2004, the footballing world wasn’t sure whether to laud Alex Ferguson for another piece of managerial genius or have him committed.

Any doubts that United and their fans may have had were quickly put to bed once they had a chance to see their new acquisition in the flesh. From the moment he pulled on the red jersey, Rooney did what Rooney does best. He scored goals.

A hat-trick, to be precise, each finish indicating that this was a young man with many strings to his bow.

A less-assured and less-aware striker would snatched at the chance which Rooney was presented with on 28 minutes when one of the side’s old hands, Ryan Giggs, slipped the ball into his path. Instead, Rooney allowed it to roll across his body, selling a beautiful dummy to the onrushing Fenerbahce defender before drilling the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards out.

His third was even better, a perfectly struck dead-ball that had the Old Trafford crowd on their feet.

Once upon a time, Rooney had worn a t-shirt which stated “once a blue, always a blue”. This was the night when he became a red.


2. Aisake Ó hAilpín (Cork)

After the success of Seán Óg and Setanta came the man with the strangest name of all – Aisake.

The aloof Ó hAilpín. The younger brother who returned to the Rebels after an unsuccessful attempt to make his fortune in Australia.

Although he had played football and hurled for the Rebels at both minor and U-21 level, Aisake wasn’t involved with either senior panel until he returned from Oz in 2008. Strange as it may seem considering the familiarity of his name, Ó hAilpín would not make his championship bow until May 2010, when Cork took on Tipperary in the first round of the Munster Championship.

Having run Kilkenny close in the previous year’s All-Ireland, Tipp were expected to find their way past the challenge presented by Cork, no matter how stern it turned out to be.

Aisake, however, was an unknown variable in the equation. Inserted at full-forward by manager Dennis Walsh, nobody was quite sure how he would fare as he made the progression from challenge games to Championship.

As it transpired, he fared quite well, using every inch of his six-foot-five frame to his advantage as he tormented the Tipp back line. Two first-half moments of complete aerial domination produced a penalty and an assist, both of which were converted into goals by Patrick Horgan.

Having provided Cork’s two goals, it was fitting that Aisake should get his own name on the scoresheet, slotting home from a tight angle on the hour mark after Jerry O’Connor had set him free.

An impressive start to an all-too-short career, Aisake’s debut performance served as the perfect rebuttal to all those who claimed that his surname rather than his talent had won him his place on the side.


3. Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals)

If there’s one thing that American sports fans and broadcasters do well, it’s hype.

22-year-old pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s debut for the Washington Nationals was slightly unusual, however, in that his performance somehow managed to live up to its wildly-exaggerated billing.

During his college days at the San Diego State University, Strasburg became one of the most closely-monitored youngsters in the history of the sport. He was so highly regarded that he was chosen to go to Beijing as part of the American team in 2008, a trip which saw him come home with an Olympic bronze medal in his pocket.

It was no surprise, therefore, when MLB side the Washington Nationals used their number one draft pick to snap up Strasburg in June 2009. That they would subsequently have to break a few records by offering him a four-year, $15.1m contract was almost to be expected.

In the run-up to Strasburg’s major league debut in August of last year, the baseball world went into overdrive, reminding anyone who would stop to listen (and many who wouldn’t) that this young man was the brightest prospect that the game had seen in decades.

How does one live up to such expectations?

Simple. Pitch seven innings. Strike fourteen batters out. Restrict your opponents to two earned runs.

Strasburg was no flash in the pan either. He followed up his impressive debut by striking out eighteen more opponents in his next two games, setting a league record for the most strikeouts by a pitcher in his first three games.

It’s easy when you know how.


4. Alvaro Recoba (Inter Milan)

On 31 August 1997, the Nerazzurri fans packed themselves into the San Siro for the first game of a new Serie A season, the air of expectation slightly more pronounced than usual.

It had been eight years since Inter had landed the Scudetto, a long time for a team with a proud record of domestic success. A drought which was felt even more severely in light of the fact that their Milanese rivals had picked up four titles of their own in the interim.

The expectation that Sunday afternoon was not altogether unreasonable, however, as the fans waited for their first glimpse of the two new  South American signings whom they hoped would bring them glory.

One was a Brazilian who had been signed for a world record £19m from Barcelona. The other, a little known Uruguayan snapped up from the country’s domestic league.

One thing is clear – if you’re making your debut on the same day as Ronaldo, you need to do something special. 21-year-old Alvaro Recoba did just that.

By the time Dario Hubner put Brescia in front with just 17 minutes remaining, the pre-match optimism had fallen decidedly flat. It was about to be reignited in the most spectacular of fashions.

Most players will go through a 15-year career and never score a single goal as good as either of those which Recoba scored that day. The first, a 30-yard screamer which he dug out from his feet and planted in the top corner. The second, a long-range free-kick struck so sweetly that it looked to be going in from the moment it left his boot.

An understated arrival if ever there was one.


5. Brian O’Driscoll (British & Irish Lions)

In a set-up packed with the cream of British and Irish rugby talent, it can be very difficult to make an impression. Unless, of course, your name is Brian O’Driscoll.

When he packed his bags in the summer of 2001, Drico was well aware that he wasn’t heading to Australia to get a suntan. This was no summer holiday, nor was it a case of making up the numbers and soaking up some experience.

No, as far as Lions coach Graham Henry was concerned, the Irish centre was one of his key men. As the Lions ploughed their way through the warm-up tests, Henry indicated that O’Driscoll would be one of his go-to men if an emergency arose, going so far as to audition the Clontarf man at full-back in case of an injury to Iain Balshaw.

O’Driscoll’s true calling was in the centre however, and if anyone doubted it, his performance in the first test against Australia in Brisbane quickly silenced them.

Alongside fellow countryman Rob Henderson, O’Driscoll was at the heart of the attacking threat offered by the Lions that day. Running well-chosen lines with confidence, it was his powerful break which established the Lions deep in Australian territory, a platform which ultimately allowed Jason Robinson to send Welsh winger Dafydd James over in the corner.

At 12-3, however, the game remained delicately poised. When the Lions needed a player to take the game by the scruff of the neck and put some daylight between themselves and the hosts, it was Drico who obliged in the second half.

Fed perfectly off the back of a maul by Wilkinson, O’Driscoll left George Smith chasing shadows as he darted 50 yards to touch down underneath the posts, securing an important test win for the Lions.


6. Boris Becker

To describe Boris Becker as a “relative unknown” in the summer of 1985 is a bit of an understatement.

Although he had performed well in a handful of junior competitions in Germany and the US, the 17-year-old Becker was practically a non-entity in the sporting world. After all, 1980s Germany was not exactly renowned for its abundance of emerging tennis talent.

When he arrived in England in June 1985, Becker had only been a professional tennis player for little over a year. His first singles win, however, couldn’t have come at a better time as he won the traditional pre-Wimbledon warm-up at the Queen’s Club.

Still, he remained unseeded and a rank outsider for his debut appearance at the All-England Tennis Club, a tournament which defending champion John McEnroe was expected to win for a fourth time in five years.

Becker’s path to the final was far from straightforward and, by the time he reached the third round, it appeared likely that seventh seed Joakim Nystrom would banish any youthful illusions which the German may have been harbouring. Becker dug deep and beat him in five.

As it was with Nystrom, so it was with the American Tim Mayotte and fifth seed Anders Jarryd, the other major obstacles standing between Becker and success.

In the end, only two players remained – Becker and South African Kevin Curren, the man who had beaten both McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. With little between them, Becker pressed home every break he could, eventually triumphing in four sets.

In doing so, he became not only the first unseeded player to win at Wimbledon but also the youngest man ever to win a Grand Slam title.

The 17-year-old had finally put German tennis on the map.


7. Jonathan Woodgate (Real Madrid)

It really is horribly unfair of me to include Jonathan Woodgate as the seventh entry on this list. However, even he will admit to you that his first appearance for Real Madrid was one of the most memorable debuts ever, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

There was something slightly unusual about the whole situation from the word go. When Madrid President Florentino Pérez wrote a cheque for £13.4m in the summer of 2004, he knew that he was taking a gamble, signing a player who had not kicked a football since tearing an adductor muscle four months earlier.

Although he was the proud owner of an injury record that would put Darren Anderton to shame, Woodgate had proven himself to be a talented centre-half at both Leeds and Newcastle. Assured that his new acquisition would be fit again within a matter of weeks, Pérez decided to take advantage of the discount on offer.

Something, somewhere, got lost in translation. Very lost. It would be fourteen months before Woodgate was ready to make his first appearance for Wanderlei Luxemburgo’s side, despite the fact the the Brazilian coach hadn’t even been at the club when the defender initially arrived.

The strange thing is that, a notable incident or two aside, Woodgate didn’t actually play that badly against Athletic Bilbao that night. One newspaper compared him the next day to the ageing Madrid icon, Fernando Hierro. The fans even seemed to like him, choosing to applaud him off the pitch rather than bombard him with severed animal limbs as might be expected.

None of which really matters, of course, when you’ve just scored an own goal and been sent off in front of thousands of fans who have waited fourteen months to see you wear their beloved colours.

As the big man put it himself in a post-match interview, “Fuck me, what a debut!”

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About the author:

Niall Kelly

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