When Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester after the World Cup in 2006, he looked broader, taller and stronger. If he had been seen as a boy in his first few campaigns, he was now a man, with Sir Alex Ferguson taking him under his wing as he had done with Eric Cantona years earlier.
There had been fears that he would leave the club that summer following a confrontation with Wayne Rooney when Portugal knocked England out of the tournament on penalties, with Ronaldo scoring one of the spot kicks. His wink to the bench inexplicably made him public enemy number one on these shores.
Regardless, it was water under the bridge for the two young forwards, both on the brink of reaching the form that would make them superstars in the game, as they combined brilliantly on the opening day when Manchester United beat Fulham 5-1.
But this process of toughening Ronaldo up, both mentally and physically, had begun some time before. For all the coaches who can claim to have had an impact on Ronaldo becoming the greatest, with Ferguson at the top of the list playing the role of the Portuguese youngster’s ‘footballing father‘, it would be remiss to ignore the part Walter Smith played.
When Ronaldo was a scrawny teenager, his talent and potential were not up for debate, but he was soft under pressure and selfish with the ball. Smith, who was temporarily Fergie’s assistant manager during Ronaldo’s first year with the club, introduced a ‘no foul’ policy to practice matches which changed the way he played.
United and Ferguson were written off at the start of the 2006/07 season, with Chelsea adding world class players to the squad that had just convincingly won the title, while United moved on Ruud van Nistelrooy without replacing him. But the manager had faith in his young stars and Ronaldo and Rooney both stepped up to the plate, scoring 23 goals each in all competitions, finishing the season as the third and fourth top scorers respectively, and a Premier League winners’ medal accompanied their strikes.
The biggest criticism of Ronaldo before this season was having no end product. He had bags of pace, his step-overs would leave full-backs on the floor, but his finishing and crossing were lacking. He had begun to answer those critics.
But if that first title winning season showed his emergence as a top quality player, the following year confirmed him as the best in the world, with a Ballon d’Or amongst the accolades to show for it.
His 42 goals in 49 games was a remarkable return, as United won the league again, but this time he added the Champions League to their trophy cabinet. While Ronaldo missed in the shootout against Chelsea, it was his header, with the levitation-like technique we’ve become accustomed to since, that took the game to penalties.
After flirting with Real Madrid all summer, he remained for another season to fulfil a promise to Ferguson, and United won the league again. When he left for a record breaking £80m – a jaw-dropping sum back then – it’s worth noting that fee would actually prove to be a massive bargain. It was hard to imagine then that he would replicate his form of the 2007/08 season while in Spain, let alone surpass it time and again. But that’s exactly what he did.
Ronaldo scored 53 goals in 54 appearances in 2010/11, 60 in 55 the following season, 55 in 55 the year after, then 51 in 47, 61 in 54, 51 in 48, and so on. He averaged 50 goals a season over nine years in Spain. Ridiculous. And his four goals in Champions League finals puts him ahead of any player in the world in that competition.
Five Ballons d’Or, five Champions League winners’ medals, seven league winners’ medals, and an insane amount of other trophies and individual accolades to go with it. He’s proven to be the man for the big occasion time and again and continued to show this with Juventus, most notably when he scored three goals against Atletico Madrid in Europe to overturn a 2-0 defeat from the first leg against all odds.
Every season he was linked with a return to Old Trafford and initially United fans believed it every time. After the retirement of Ferguson, supporters were desperate for someone to come in and save the day, and Ronaldo seemingly had a greater pedigree than any potential manager for being able to singlehandedly turn the fortunes of a club around.
However, it was only this summer – after Manchester City bloggers, fan channels, former players and podcasters were wetting themselves over the possibility of signing Ronaldo – that the deal finally happened.
It was like Christmas Day. The dread of imagining seeing a United legend in the blue of City, coupled with him snubbing them to come home, was euphoric. Of course he was past his best, but a declining Ronaldo is still better than pretty much anyone else still playing the game.
Ronaldo is the most clutch player of all time and he’s still proving that at United. First time around there was the late winner against Fulham as United closed in on the 2007 title, the opening goal against Wigan on the final day of the season to win the league in 2008 and the two goals he scored against Spurs to help United come back from 2-0 down to win 5-2 to turn the tide to win the 2009 title.
This time around, the difference is that the goals he’s scoring are clearly not going to propel United to the title, but time and again he has shown up when it matters, especially in Europe.
He’s scored 13 goals in 18 appearances in all competitions, with his role in the Champions League ensuring United finished top the group, after failing to progress last season. There was the 95th minute winner against Villarreal at home before scoring the opener in the win against them away, and the 81st minute winner in a game United had gone 2-0 down in against Atalanta at Old Trafford, before scoring both goals in the away draw.
Only three players have scored more goals than Ronaldo in the league this season, all of them with more minutes on the pitch, with his contribution proving decisive against the likes of Arsenal and West Ham.
He benefited from the big personalities in the dressing room during his first stint at the club, developing his winning mentality and high standards, and now he’s raising the bar for the players in this squad. You can only imagine how much the likes of Jadon Sancho, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, who had all previously named him as an inspiration, will benefit from seeing how this legend plays and trains up close.
When United won the Treble in 1999, so many of those players hailed Cantona as their hero, who had set the expectation for them in terms in preparation, competitiveness and hard work.
There’s no denying that Ronaldo’s best days are behind him, but when a player has as much quality and experience as him his value to the team becomes more than what he brings to the pitch now, but what he adds to the young minds of those he’s playing alongside. His legacy is there for all to see but he’s still got the time and motivation to achieve even more, both through himself and those who are on the field with him.
“These fans are special,” he said when he signed for a second time. “I hope they can push the team when they need it. We will be here on the pitch trying our best and trying to win important things.
“This is why I am here, I am not on vacation, winning before was good but I am here to win again. I am capable. I am ready to go.”
Ronaldo’s footballing story hasn’t finished yet. We’re the lucky ones who get to witness it.