JONATHAN WOODGATE is in no doubt about the pecking order in football’s elite hierarchy.
“There’s Manchester United, Liverpool of course, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus,” he tells SunSport.
“But Real Madrid are top of the pile. Even bigger than United.”
The 42-year-old would say that, having played for the Spanish giants during an illustrious, though injury-plagued, career.
But Woody insists there is documented proof his former club are the best of the very, very best.
He adds: “The fact they could be crowned European champions for the 14th time if they beat Liverpool says it all.
“There is something unique about that football club. It has an aura about it.
“They are football royalty and across the world, whenever Real Madrid are in town, it’s a huge occasion.
“Remember when you were a kid and you’re going to grandma and grandpa’s for Sunday dinner, you’d always dress smartly. It’s a bit like that with Real.”
And that perhaps explains why 18 years ago, Woodgate, then a cornerstone of a high-flying Newcastle side, broke Sir Bobby Robson’s heart by swapping the Toon for Madrid.
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The Geordies were chasing Champions League qualification and — with Alan Shearer banging in the goals at one end and Shay Given, Woodgate and Co stopping them at the other — prospects were bright on Tyneside.
But when Real came calling, there was no dilemma inside the player’s head.
He says: “I remember Sir Bobby telling me they wanted to sign me.
“I can’t forget what happened next. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want you to go, son’.
“But it was a no-brainer. You don’t turn down Real Madrid. I don’t think any footballer in the world would.
“So I replied, ‘I know you want me to stay, gaffer, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. As a football man, he understood.”
Woodgate arrived in the Spanish capital carrying an injury, the centre-back did not play for the next 12 months and when he finally did make his debut, he scored an own goal and was sent off.
Despite a brief spell when he was lauded for his classy displays alongside Sergio Ramos, fitness issues continued to dog the player and he eventually joined home-town club Middlesbrough on loan before going on to seal a permanent deal at the Riverside.
Woodgate knows he played too few games for Real and a chronic injury record meant his entire senior career was largely unfulfilled.
But nothing can take away the magic of having played alongside Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham.
He adds: “You felt special playing for that club.
“I know Atletico Madrid are big in their own right but living there, you felt the whole city was behind Real.
“The two sports papers devoted the first 15 pages to what was happening and — apart from closed sessions — more than 50 cameras would turn up for training each day.
“Everyone talks about the Galacticos and it is true that Real had some superstars in that dressing room but when you got to know them, they were just normal, everyday guys.”
What was not normal, however, was the unique pressure of pulling on that pristine Madrid shirt.
Woodgate adds: “When I was at Leeds, I learnt that Don Revie had changed the kit to all white so that the team looked like Real Madrid.
“But there’s something about the original, isn’t there? The badge, the trimmings and it seems to have a whiteness all of its own.
“There’s probably not a more recognisable football strip in the world. But to wear it carries responsibility.
“Winning is everything at that club, in training and of course on matchdays. Second is nowhere. That was hammered into us from the moment we arrived. There aren’t too many clubs in sport where winning is such an obsession.”
Woodgate saw Real Madrid knock out Paris Saint-Germain this season and was also present to see his former club shatter Manchester City’s dream of a first Champions League crown.
And he believes it was that winning mentality which came to the fore in the closing minutes of all those ties.
He says: “There’s no denying City should have been out of sight after the first leg and then in the second, they controlled the first 85 minutes.
“But that competition does something for Real Madrid. I was fortunate to play at the Bernabeu on European nights and it really is a quite extraordinary experience.
“We witnessed that in that dramatic finale against City. No one but Real could have done what they did that night.”
Which brings us to this year’s final between Real and Liverpool, where Woodgate briefly joined the scouting team after hanging up his boots.
He says: “A clash of two glory teams. Both European aristocrats.
“There are wonderful players on each side but I believe the outcome rests on one individual.
“If Virgil van Dijk is 100 per cent fit, Liverpool win, if he isn’t, they lose. Simple as that.
“The guy is world class, probably the best centre-half on the planet. No disrespect to anyone else but his fitness holds the key.”